Clip: Howlin' Wolf bio
- I was not aware of the Sam Lay anecdote. Ouch.
Four Hundred Pages of Heavenly Joy
Howlin' Wolf is one of the biggest names in blues, but a new biography is
the first to tell his story.
By anyone's standards Chester Arthur Burnett -- the man better known as
Howlin' Wolf -- led a colorful life. But for first-time authors James
Segrest and Mark Hoffman, who've just published a biography of the
legendary singer and harpist, the most remarkable aspect of his story was
that no one had put it to paper before.
"I'm still shocked that James and I are the first guys to take a stab at
this," says Hoffman. "Because here's a guy who was an abused child,
suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, was shot by one wife, stabbed
with a butcher knife by another, [and] killed a man with a hoe. All that in
addition to the fact that he's arguably the greatest bluesman ever. It's
like, `Why didn't anybody tell this tale yet?'
"On the other hand," Hoffman adds, "there's not a whole lot of money in
writing about the blues."
The seeds for Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf
(Pantheon) were sown in 1985, when Segrest came upon a Howlin' Wolf best-of
collection as a grad student in history at Auburn University in Alabama.
"This may sound corny," he says, "but the first time I heard `Smokestack
Lightnin',' the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I'd never heard
anything that made me feel that way before."
Segrest went to the library to read up on Wolf, but all he could find were
threadbare anecdotes and bits of boilerplate in blues survey books. In the
early 90s his work on what would become Moanin' at Midnight began in
earnest: by then he was pursuing a PhD at the University of South Carolina,
and he made Wolf the subject of his dissertation. He eventually burned out
and abandoned his degree program, but not until after he'd researched
Wolf's early years in Mississippi and Arkansas and spent six weeks in
Chicago, which had become the bluesman's home in 1953, talking to his
family, friends, and former colleagues. (Wolf himself died in 1976, at age
In the fall of 1994 Segrest visited the Record Mart in Drew, Mississippi --
a magnet for blues enthusiasts. Hoffman, a former writer for Microsoft in
Seattle and occasional music critic, was at the shop the same day. ("We
were the only two white faces in there," says Segrest.) Hoffman was
researching his own volume on Wolf. "I'd basically gotten into this
heavy-duty blues craze and deep into Wolf," he says. "Like [James] I
started looking for biographical information on him and found there was
Segrest and Hoffman kept in touch, and after meeting again in Helena,
Arkansas, at the 1996 King Biscuit Blues Festival, they decided to
collaborate. During the years of work that followed, the pair conducted
roughly 300 interviews and dug up thousands of pages of documents. But
Segrest stayed in Alabama, Hoffman in Washington, and they completed the
book -- which is nearly 400 pages long -- without another face-to-face
Moanin' at Midnight turns up a wealth of new facts, unraveling much of the
mystery that surrounds Howlin' Wolf. Fittingly, it comes on the heels of
Can't Be Satisfied (Little, Brown), Robert Gordon's definitive bio of
Wolf's chief Chicago blues rival, Muddy Waters. Segrest and Hoffman aren't
quite as ambitious as Gordon -- in his hands, Waters's story doubles as a
metaphor for the black migratory experience of the 20th century -- but they
provide crucial insight into the forces that drove Wolf throughout his life.
Chief among them was his conflicted relationship with religion. Cast out by
his mother for playing "devil's music" and abused by his great-uncle Will
Young, a deacon, Wolf dug into the blues with such zeal that Segrest and
Hoffman suspect he was trying to shake off the authority figures who'd
turned on him. "A lot of people in his community thought he sold his soul,
and that's not idle talk," says Segrest. "Wolf's own mama...wouldn't even
come to his funeral." Adds Hoffman, "In a way, how he performed onstage was
a kind of exorcism and rebellion against what he'd experienced at the hands
of his mother and Will Young."
Wolf's theatrical onstage style -- much of it learned from early mentor
Charlie Patton -- had a tremendous impact on the blues. "Wolf was one of
the first guys -- at least in Chicago -- who really concentrated on the
show, on giving a performance," says Segrest. Whereas Muddy Waters radiated
a detached, urbane cool, Wolf was a feral, menacing presence, unhinged and
restless. His outrageous antics with women in the audience required him to
make haste after more than one gig, with a crowd of angry husbands and
boyfriends on his tail. "When you find out some of the stories about him
you have to wonder if Wolf was reckless or fearless or a bit of both," says
Wolf's mid-60s appearances in Europe, particularly England, influenced a
generation of Anglo rockers: in 1969 Led Zeppelin appropriated the riff
from his "Killing Floor" for "The Lemon Song," and covers of his tunes
appeared on albums by Jeff Beck, Cream, and others. His recorded output of
the era -- "Wang Dang Doodle," "Spoonful," "The Red Rooster" -- would also
leave its mark on the warped blues of Americans like Tom Waits and Captain
Though Moanin' at Midnight acknowledges Wolf's larger-than-life image, the
book also takes pains to present him as a three-dimensional character. More
than just a bug-eyed house-rocking behemoth -- he was six foot three and
nearly 300 pounds in his prime -- Wolf was a responsible businessman and
bandleader, even withholding social security and unemployment from his
musicians' pay. (Thanks to this foresight, drummer Sam Lay was able to
collect government checks for months after he accidentally shot off one of
his own testicles.) Wolf's financial prudence likely had its roots in the
years he spent following his itinerant sharecropper father around the
Mississippi Delta. "He had a childhood of such deprivation," says Hoffman.
"He never wanted to go back to walking around with burlap bags wrapped
around his feet
Purists have always regarded Wolf highly, but Segrest and Hoffman feel that
his legacy has suffered with the general public. Part of this they
attribute to his career arc: by the early 70s Wolf was handicapped by heart
and kidney problems, and though he continued to record and perform, he
never again achieved the high profile he'd enjoyed in the late 60s. By
contrast, Muddy Waters remained healthy and active until his death in '83,
making appearances with the Band and the Rolling Stones and cutting four
fine comeback albums with Johnny Winter in the late 70s and early 80s.
"Wolf didn't quite live long enough to get some of the acclaim that Muddy
did," says Hoffman. "A few more years might've really helped."
Segrest and Hoffman have scheduled a series of appearances in Chicago,
including a 5 PM panel discussion at the Chicago Blues Festival's Route 66
Roadhouse stage on Thursday, June 10 (Wolf's 94th birthday), a stop at
Rosa's Lounge at 9 that night, and a 9:30 brunch reading and book signing
at Jazz Record Mart on Sunday, June 13.
-- BOB MEHR