Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, was born in 1910 on the Illinois Central train line near the Mississippi/Alabama border. His eighteen-year-old, Black, sharecropper dad married his fifteen-year-old, Choctaw, pregnant mom unceremoniously.
Onstage, Chester beat his guitar like a drum and rode it like a pony. He bent strings with his fingers or made them sob with a slide. He played one harmonica with his mouth and another simultaneously with his nose. He padded around like a caged animal or crawled across the floor. He licked his lips, humped the air, stared balefully, mumbled to himself, and always carried a pistol.
In his tormented classic, “Goin’ Down Slow,” Chester begs for pardon: “Please, write my mama. Tell her the shape I’m in. Tell her to pray for me: forgive me for my sin.” Wolf always remained skeptical of organized religion; he figured if his mom and uncle were on that side, he belonged on the other. Yet he knelt by his bed in prayer every night. British bandleader Chris Barber hosted blues and gospel musicians for decades and recalled, “The only one who ever said grace before meals was Wolf, the only one!” When his kidneys failed, he phoned mom from his Chicago deathbed. She refused to take the call.
Chester once told an interviewer, “The people that come up the hard way—that come up sufferin’—they can play that music. You think the blues is gone down for the count? Blues is gonna be played in people’s homes. Even to this day, I wouldn’t be allowed in their houses—but my music is gonna be.” Today, statues of Howlin’ Wolf span the length of the Mississippi and his image dons a US postage stamp. Now everyone plays music from the Delta, but not just anyone can put the Delta into the music.