Four Hundred Pages of Heavenly Joy | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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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.


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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 65.)

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 hardly anything."

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 meeting.

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 Segrest, laughing.

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 Beefheart.

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 for shoes."

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.

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