As a genre, blues has its limitations. One of the most formulaic musical forms ever invented, 95% of the songs have the same chord progression, for crying out loud. Go to a bar on "blues night" and it's all cliches, solos, and bravado, fine for drinking beer to, but don't expect to have your heart moved or your mind blown. And dear God, if you're at a party and someone suggests a blues jam, it's probably time to go home. For the most part, blues is more an ingredient that spices up other musical forms (jazz, soul, folk, rock, psychedelia, West African music, zydeco, even country and punk) than a music you can spend much quality time on in its own right. (I'm practically inviting a flame war here; this blog needs more comments anyway! Bring it on!)
[UPDATE: OK, I must clarify. In that paragraph, I'm mostly talking about "blues" as it is played today by too many lazy people. Please read on...]
There are so many great visionaries who have made the blues their life's work, found their voices there, and created whole worlds within those limitations. Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, I can listen to those guys all day. Bessie Smith, of course, was a goddess, as was Memphis Minnie. Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson II made some killer records throughout their careers, though other stuff by them I have to admit I respect more than enjoy. But there's one artist out there who I love without reservation: Howlin' Wolf.
Wolf, born Chester Burnett, had the best band (especially guitarist and longtime foil Hubert Sumlin, who spewed out snappy, economical, biting riffs that spoke more in a few choice twangs than other guitarists could do in their solos), the best songs (by both himself and Willie Dixon), an arresting growl of a voice (without him, Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits would have sounded very different), and a huge personality abundant with power, dread, rage and humor. But despite all the pleasure I've gotten from his records over the years, I started this movie knowing very little about the man himself.
We get lots of performance footage, with Wolf belting out his songs in that voice and pulling some wild stage antics like licking his instruments (harmonica and guitar), bugging out his eyes, and scowling and pointing his finger like an angry hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, all while sitting in a chair and not looking the least bit sedentary. (Too bad he didn't have more cameras pointing at him in his younger years, when he could really let go; we have to rely on eyewitness accounts for that.) Wolf took his role as a showman seriously, working hard to keep the audience excited. At the same time, when he stops the clowning, narrows his eyes, and points that finger at the audience, you can feel the sting of the reprimand as surely as if you were the character he's singing to in the song.
We are taken back to the childhood of young Chester Burnett, a poor black kid in rural Mississippi from a broken home, shuffled from relative to relative, scared of wolves (which led to him getting his famous nickname), and discontented with the lot of a 15 cent a day cotton picker in the segregated South. A more interesting alternative shows up in the form of an itinerant guitar player (none other than the great Charley Patton himself) who stirs the kid's love of music. When Chester comes of age, he has been living with his father, a kind-hearted man who gives in to his son's request for a guitar of his own. He strikes out to make his fortune and starts playing dodgy juke joints in the area, including a stint where he and Robert Johnson perform as a duo...
Gotta stop here. My jaw dropped at this point. Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson, performing together? How amazing must that have been, these two electrifying young artists throwing down together in front of an audience? Of course, being the Deep South in the 1930s, no one filmed or recorded this; the people we now think of as revered American cultural icons were regarded as nothing but n*****s, hardly worthy of attention. What a crime.
Anyway, our hero is paying his dues, receiving his baptism by fire in these rough backwoods venues, until he decides that Memphis is the place to go. We get our first inkling of the enterprising side of the Wolf; he not only establishes himself as a busy local musician, but he also gets himself a regular radio gig. One thing that impresses over and over in this movie is what a serious work ethic Wolf had. Earlier we are told that as a child his mother threw him out because he wouldn't work in the fields; one could conclude from this that he was a lazy adolescent, but looking at how hard he worked all his life, one gets the impression that he was too smart to allow himself to be exploited as a second-class citizen performing cheap labor. Wolf wasn't an explicitly political artist, mostly singing about personal conflict, emotional turmoil, and (especially) the wondrous pleasures of the flesh, but you get the impression that black pride was an innate thing with him. And it was that pride that sustained him and brought him his success.
In Memphis, this larger-than-life artist started to get some real attention. We get a nice cameo from Paul Burlison of Johnny Burnette's Rock & Roll Trio telling us how he met Wolf at the radio station where their respective bands performed, and we see how it was the power of music that helped break the barriers of the segregated South in the 50s and 60s; despite the system, they were peers digging each other's sound. (Peter Guralnik's book Sweet Soul Music is full of stories like this. An essential history book. Go get it.) The catalyst that propelled Wolf into the next phase of his life was the legendary Sam Phillips (long before Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny, or Carl), who recorded Wolf's first record, the haunting, eerie "Moanin' At Midnight", which instigated a bidding war that was won by Chess Records in Chicago. Wolf, proud man that he is, moves to Chicago not by train or thumb, but drives there himself with $4000 in his pocket.
In Chicago, Wolf has a long career full of steady gigs and hit records, eventually crossing over to the white rock audience curious about the original versions of the songs they've heard the Rolling Stones, Doors, Cream, and others do. And young Hubert Sumlin is there for the whole thing. Now an affable old man, Sumlin is here to talk about his imposing, no-nonsense mentor: "If you said something to him, you had better be right, and you'd better say it right." Meanwhile, Wolf's two daughters talk about him as a father and a husband to their mother, and we see another side to the guy: a sweet, open-hearted man who adored his wife and kids. The daughters make a point of saying that there was no contradiction between the stable family man and the wild man on the stage: "That was just his spirit coming out." The jilted (and jilting) lover in so many of his songs must have been drawn from his younger years.
Again, pride, resilience and self-improvement are a recurring theme here. (Functionally illiterate as a youth, he eventually put himself through school in his fifties, where he learned to read and write, got a GED, and went on to study accounting. For a man his age, this was no small achievement, and testifies to his incredible drive.) We see Wolf at the Newport Folk Festival at one point, heckled by a drunken Son House, one of his old musical mentors gone to seed and coming off as a pathetic old man. Wolf delivers a blistering speech at House for wasting his life and his gifts that must have made him feel six inches tall. "He didn't take no mess", another associate recalls.
Late in the movie and in his life, we are told of Chester Burnett's reunion with his mother. It does not go well. His mother was a fiercely devout Baptist and never forgave her son for playing "Devil's music", throwing the money he gave her on the ground with contempt, and leaving her heartbroken son to drive away in tears. Shortly after, when Wolf cries out "Please write my mama/Tell her the shape I'm in/Tell her to pray for me/Forgive me for my sins" in one of his last great songs, "Goin' Down Slow" (which also references the illness that killed him in the end) we realize how poignant that lyric must have been to him, despite Willie Dixon's somewhat goofy spoken-word interjections in the same song.
Dixon is strangely absent in this story, and it's hard to fathom why. A powerful figure at Chess Records, Dixon played bass and, most importantly, was a gifted songwriter who penned great tunes for many of his fellow Chess artists, including Wolf. From all accounts I've seen, there was a lot of tension between the two men; Wolf didn't feel he needed anyone else to write songs for him, and even detested at least one of the songs Dixon gave him, "Wang Dang Doodle". (A great song, actually, a surreal, crazy downhome scenario worthy of Bo Diddley) I'd have liked to see some light cast on the fractious Wolf/Dixon working relationship, but even though the DVD includes a bonus feature on the infamous Howlin' Wolf/Muddy Waters rivalry, we get nothing on the subject here. I do think the guy who gave us "Little Red Rooster" deserves some recognition here.
Otherwise, I have no complaints. It has been a pleasure to make the acquaintance of Mr. Howlin' Wolf via this movie. I come away with admiration for his heart and strength along with the music I've always loved.