Monday, October 12, 2015

The Mississippi Cradle of American Music II

Led Zepplin’s Lemon Song and My Head's In Mississippi by ZZ Top are both referenced in the previous post of this musical history. Both tunes refer to the songs of Howlin’ Wolf. His story is somewhat typical of the Mississippi Delta’s legendary bluesmen, who constitute the foundation of American music.

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.

During his toddler years, his father moved away, his native grandfather nicknamed him “Wolf” for his mischievousness, and his mother threw him out to fend for himself. He found shelter with his brutal, violent uncle—a church deacon. His new guardian leatherwhipped him into working cotton from sunup to bedtime while providing him with bread, milk, and eventually a pair of shoes.

Chester whistled or sang while plowing. During breaks, he beat on a bucket or made a one-string diddleybow out of board and bailing wire. After saving for and donning his first pair of trousers, he was knocked into mud and slop by the family’s prize hog. He beat the pig to death, then ran for the train, just ahead of uncle’s whip—barefoot, raggedy, thirteen, and Delta-bound.

On the Young & Morrow Plantation, he slaved behind a team of flea-bitten, farting mules. The blues, a series of twelve-bar phrases based on three chords, an A-A-B rhyme pattern, and simple, passionate truth, came as naturally as sweating. The music was a road out of hell. It provided escape during work, relaxation after work, and with mastery a way to quit work.

Chester played Delta juke joints with mentor Charlie Patton and pal Robert Johnson. These hangouts were dangerous outfits where bluesmen brought in the women, women brought in the men, and men, drinking whisky from bottles or tin cups while packing guns or knives, gambled with deadly intensity.

Under the scorching sun, Chester grew into a six foot, five inch tall, almost three hundred hulking pound adult with huge head, hands, and feet. His skin was smooth and dark. His blue-gray eyes, growly voice, and paranoid/sexually predatory nature truly seemed wolfish.

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 the 1950s, Chester Burnett played on Beale Street in Memphis while a teenage Elvis Presley hung in the shadows. The Wolf also preceded the King into Sun Studios, recording masterpieces “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “Smokestack Lightnin’.” On the latter, hypnotic rhythm gradually picks up steam like a locomotive. Full-moon falsetto-howls punctuate work-song field-holler vocals. Dark, cryptic lyrics convey a Gothic spirituality and summon up ghost trains from his disturbed nightmarish childhood near the tracks. All throughout, Wolf’s primal soul wails for his mother like a lupine cub lost in the wilderness.

This theme of “a woman done him wrong” permeates Chester’s musicology. In real life, his mother refused to speak to him. Neither his serial adulteries nor her child abandonment troubled her much, but his playing the devil’s music (blues) in places serving demonic drink (alcohol) was inexcusable. She insisted that she was Jesus’ child but that he had sold his soul.

Near the end of his life, he tracked her down in Clarksdale and hugged her, slipping a five-hundred-dollar bill into her pocket. She found it, spat on it, stomped on it, and yelled, “I don’t want your dirty money!” He cried all the way to Memphis.

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.

Religion’s designation of blues and later rock ‘n’ roll as “devil music” was a thin disguise for its real crime of being “nigger music.” (WC Handy, first great composer of the blues, was a pious bible-believer who wrote uplifting songs.) The contagious groove and earthy lyrics were commonly attributed to the “primitiveness” of the black race. However, primitive nature was not the muse, primitive treatment was. Reduce people to survival level and they confront life’s elemental themes and rawest emotions. In parlor talk, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In the Delta, it’s just a mean motherfucker.

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.

24 comments:

  1. The story Chester Arthur is very interesting, because his life was very hard, I don't know, but the life of some good artists how Robert johnson and Chester was difficult.
    Also I think the life of the black people were more hard for the problem of racism, and also is sad how his mother not want more her child. The item is good for this kind of music (blues).

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  2. Ana Karen López AragónOctober 17, 2015 at 10:48 PM

    I like the article, it's really interesting the history of Chester. His life was difficult but, he was an important blues singer. Definitely the history of the music is interesting.

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  3. The history of Howlin 'Wolf is awesome. Everything that happened to become a music legend is incredible.
    Good :)

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  4. Really good.
    I don't like rock a lot, but is very interesting.
    👍🏻

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  5. “Goin’ Down Slow” it's a great song, interested story

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  6. Sofía Celin Pineda SánchezOctober 18, 2015 at 10:34 PM

    Well, I think this man whose nickname is Wolf or Howlin' Wolf, is like a very important member of the genre of blues, so even, being despised for his mother and later for his uncle, he never gave up and always loved sing the blues.

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  7. It is difficult to have problems with your mother and that at the end of life, no reconciliation, sad and painful.

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  8. Sofia Rivera AguerrebereOctober 19, 2015 at 12:45 PM

    I liked the history of Chester because it is very interesting.

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  9. I think that the worst moment of your life is when his mother the abandoned. This history is really sad but i like it.

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  10. I think it is a sad story that has reflection. the life of Chester Arthur Burnett was difficult but continued . really he suffered by the contempt of his mother.

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  11. The article is good, although I do not like that kind of music. Chester's life is very sad, having been abandoned by her mother must have been hard for him.

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  12. chester 's life is very interesting

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  13. Lyn, your article is very interesting, the Chester Arthur Life is so sad and make me take a thought, but him never drag down :) good

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  14. The life Chester Arthur is very interesting, because his life was very difficult, I think that people who suffer , finish with a reward. I also believe that the lives of black people was very difficult with the problems of racism. A good article for those who love this kind of music and also as a sample example of the persistent human life.
    Miguel Ángel Muñoz grupo: 226

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  15. This is an interesting article. Man's life was very complicated.
    Alhelí Lavariega

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  16. The text seems very interesting, i did not know the history of blus nor life of inventor of this gender of music

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  17. This is a good article and interesting Because is about the music And i like it,the life chester is difficult Because he is a black people.

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  18. The article is very interesting about life of Chester Arthur. Very good history! Thanks Lyn. :)

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  19. The text is very interesting, because i didn't know the history about Chester life
    Valeria Narvaez.

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  20. The article is very interesting about life of Chester Arthur. Very good history. Thanks Lyn!

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  21. ohh this is interenting article, i did not kwon about him history is life so sad.

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  22. The article is very interesting, the rock music genre is the most mysterious.

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  23. The information is very interesing.
    Now i have idea of american music.

    Felix Alexander

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