Howlin’ Wolf was a musical giant in every way. He stood six foot three, weighed almost three hundred pounds, wore size sixteen shoes, and poured out his darkest sorrows onstage in a voice like a raging chainsaw. Half a century after his first hits, his sound still terrifies and inspires.
Born Chester Burnett in 1910, the Wolf survived a grim childhood and hardscrabble youth as a sharecropper in Mississippi. He began his career playing and singing with the first Delta blues stars for two decades in perilous juke joints. He was present at the birth of rock ’n’ roll in Memphis, where Sam Phillips–who also discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis–called Wolf his “greatest discovery.” He helped develop the sound of electric blues and vied with rival Muddy Waters for the title of king of Chicago blues. He ended his career performing and recording with the world’s most famous rock stars. His passion for music kept him performing–despite devastating physical problems–right up to his death in 1976.
There’s never been a comprehensive biography of the Wolf until now. Moanin’ at Midnight is full of startling information about his mysterious early years, surprising and entertaining stories about his decades at the top, and never-before-seen photographs. It strips away all the myths to reveal–at long last–the real-life triumphs and tragedies of this blues titan.
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James Segrest (left) has written for Blues Access magazine and cowrote the liner notes for the Grammy-nominated album A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf. He lives in Notasulga, Alabama.
Mark Hoffman has written for Blues Access, Living Blues, and Blues to Do magazines and narrated the prizewinning film The Howlin’ Wolf Story. He lives on an island near Seattle.
Halley's Comet burned across the Mississippi night like a brakeman's lantern during June 1910, leading to suicides and whispers of Armageddon. Up north in Hartford, the Connecticut Yankees were lamenting the recent passing of the brightest star in the American literary firmament, Mark Twain. In New York City, W. E. B. Du Bois, anguished about race riots and lynchings around the nation, was preparing the first issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In Reno, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was training for his July 4th title defense against former champ Jim Jeffries, "The Great White Hope," a spectacle that would lead to more race riots. In Washington, D.C., Congress was debating the Mann White Slave Traffic Act, which would ban "the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes"-a law specifically targeted at Johnson that would soon send him to jail for traveling with his white girlfriend.
Across the South, Jim Crow and Judge Lynch were triumphant. Black people were subject to vicious but legal discrimination, voting restraints, violent customs, and state-sanctioned terror that negated their rights and blighted their hopes. A half century after the horrific war to end slavery, black people in the South were again living in near slavery.
In West Point, Mississippi, the news in the West Point Leader ("Conservative in All Things; Radical in Nothing") was all about a new brick schoolhouse for "colored" children that cost $7,000, the Elk Club's drive to raise $25,000 for an opera house, and the rising price of live meat hogs: $11 per 100 pounds. West Point, situated in the state's eastern hills near the Alabama border but formerly the westernmost point in Lowndes County until it was incorporated into Clay County, covered three square miles, and had a population of 5,500. A small town, it was big enough to rate a train visit by President William Taft the October before.
Into this violent, radically divided world, Chester Arthur Burnett came howling on Friday, June 10, 1910, at White Station, Mississippi, four miles northeast of West Point. The baby who would grow up to sing so hauntingly about trains could hear the Illinois Central chuff to a stop three times a day to pick up passengers at the tiny White Station train depot. Because of a nineteenth-century border dispute, people in White Station in 1910 weren't sure whether they lived in Clay County or Monroe County to the north.The hamlet is near the county line and most of White Station Road lies north of the line in Monroe County.
Named for the twenty-first president of the United States, Chester, like most black children in Mississippi, spent his early years in crushing poverty. His neighbors were poor families like his own who struggled to survive a repressive racial caste system while farming the unusually fertile, fifteen-mile-wide belt of "black prairie" soil that ran through the region and across to Alabama. Twenty years before he was born, black people in White Station were so desperate that they formed a committee and wrote to the president of the United States to beg for help:
We want such things as meat, flour, sugar and coffee and clothes and shoes and also our little children is starving and is naked and crying for bread and we is not able to give it to them. . . . If you all don't help us we will all be dead by July sure, without a doubt, and please for God's sace help us for we can not live this way. . .
In 1904, Reverend C. S. Buchanan, a black West Point merchant who owned a thriving printing business, was condemned at a meeting of a hundred white men who objected to his "prospering." Ordered under threat of death to sell his business, Buchanan and his family fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. A few years before, another successful black grocer in West Point was forced to leave town, another black retailer was ordered to "sell his buggy and walk," and a third, who owned two horse-drawn cabs, had to sell one lest he, too, risk prospering. Just thirty-five miles northeast is the town of Vardaman, named for Mississippi governor and U.S. senator James Vardaman, who vowed to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black people the right to vote, and claimed that the only effect of educating a black man is to "spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook."
In this bleak, unforgiving land, Chester's father, Leon "Dock" Burnett, toiled as a sharecropper, while Chester's mother, Gertrude Jones, worked as a cook and maid. Dock, born in nearby Aberdeen in December 1891 to Albert and Amelia Burnett, was eighteen when Chester was born. Gertrude, born fifty miles south in Shuqualak, Mississippi, in June 1894 to John Wesley Jones and Catherine Tripplett, was nearing sixteen.10 Chester's paternal grandparents were African-American; Chester said his father was "Ethiopian." Gertrude, like so many "African Americans," also had American Indian ancestors. Her father was a full-blooded Indian, probably of the Choctaw tribe, who had a reservation twenty-five miles from Shuqualak.12 Dock and Gertrude married in Aberdeen on November 20, 1909. Chester was her only child.
Chester was nicknamed "Wolf" by his maternal grandfather, John Wesley Jones, whom the boy described as "one of them away-back guys, an old guy, whiskers way down to there." Grandpa Jones used to scare young Chester with stories about the wolves that roamed the nearby woods. "I was bad about getting my grandmother's little chicks," Chester said. "Every time I'd get one I didn't have enough sense to just hold him-I'd squeeze him and kill him. So I got so bad about it they told me they was going to have to put the wolf on me. Scared me up like that. So everybody else went to calling me the Wolf. I was real young." One day, his grandfather brought home an animal that he'd shot. Chester thought it was a dog, but his grandfather assured him it was a wolf, and then told him "the story 'bout how the wolf done the Little Red Ridin' Hood."16 "And me being just a kid I'd believe what he say," Chester said. "And it got to where everybody called me Wolf if I'd do some misdemeanor, you see, and I'd run and hide under the bed and they'd howl after me. That was where my name started. I've always been the Wolf."
Dock traveled down to the Mississippi Delta every spring to work as a farm laborer. He and Gertrude separated when their son was a year old, and Dock moved to the Delta permanently. Gertrude and Chester moved north into Monroe County. She was showing signs of mental instability-becoming an eccentric religious singer who performed and sold self-penned spirituals to passersby on the streets of Aberdeen and West Point. She and her son sang in the choir at Life Board Baptist Church, thirteen miles north White Station, near Gibson, Mississippi. Chester later said he got his musical talent from his mother. It was one of the only things he ever got from her.
When Chester was still a child, Gertrude sent him away. We'll probably never know why precisely. Maybe, as Chester told a friend, his mother became enraged because he wouldn't work in the fields for 15 cents a day. Maybe, as he told his last wife, his mother rejected him when he refused to sing spirituals with her because he already had his sights set on another calling-singing the blues. Maybe, as a friend of his wife heard, his mother got involved with a man who didn't want Chester around. (By 1920 Gertrude was living with a man almost twice her age.) Maybe, as Chester told another friend, his mother, half-Indian, didn't want him simply because he was "too dark." Maybe all of these stories were true to different extents or at different times in his grim childhood. Who can know why a mother would reject her only child?
Whatever the reason, one cold winter day, Gertrude cast her young boy out to fend for himself, saying, "Don't come back." Chester walked many miles across frozen ground with burlap "croker" sacks tied around his bare feet before he reached the home of his great-uncle Will Young, his father's mother's brother.
Born the year the Civil War ended, Young was fifty-five years old in 1920. He and his forty-year-old wife, Eliza, were working to pay off the loan on their small farm and two-room house in White Station. Also in their household were Chester's retarded aunt, Lyda "Laddie" Burnett, sixteen, her brother Gaddis Burnett, ten, and an unrelated girl, Lucy Mae Wiseman, seven, whom the Youngs took in as a toddler not long before the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed her mother, sister, and two brothers. It may seem odd that the Youngs were raising so many children who were not their own, but in White Station almost everyone was related by blood or marriage, and poor Americans at the time often relied on relatives and friends to raise children.
Standing six feet tall, dark-complexioned, and weighing more than two hundred pounds, Young was half-deaf and had an odd habit of clearing his throat noisily before he spoke. He had very little patience with children, or anybody else, for that matter, and often displayed a violent temper. Annie Stevenson, who married Chester's cousin Levy Eggerson, said, "Will Young was mean to all them children." Chester's childhood friend Leroy Swift said, "I ain't never seen a man like that in my whole life." Leroy's sister, Priscilla "Silla" Swift, Chester's first girlfriend, said Will Young "was the meanest man between here and hell." But Will and Eliza were the only parents Chester had then, so he called them "Daddy" and "Mother."
Young had three "outside" children with an unmarried woman who lived nearby-ironic, in that he later drove out his own daughter for conceiving a child out of wedlock. But Young and his wife needed the helping...
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