Record Bin: How Howlin’ Wolf bled the blues on “Moanin’ in the Moonlight”

Authored By pitulah

The sounds of the blues feel as though they were pulled from some primordial musical history-a place where rhythms and melodies first coalesced and formed the initial tones that would go on to form the backbone of modern music. Woven together by pain, heartache and the need for change, these notes and themes formed a tightly knit heart that radiated anguish but was full of barely contained ferocity and violent emotional catharses. You always know it when you hear the blues.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, the blues were intermingled with folk, gospel and country music, a steamrolling brew that ripped out heartstrings and patched up broken hearts. It was an emotional tonic, as well as a way of letting off intense frustration and anger. Artists such as Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly spoke from generations of abuse, distrust and the daily struggles to survive-and though some of those early songs were barbed and prone to bursts of violent release, other tracks found comfort in the arms of God or a woman.

Later on, different bluesmen came along who picked up the mantle of these older musicians and carried that weight for as long as they could. And out of the Mississippi Delta came Chester Arthur Burnett, a man who would record as Howlin’ Wolf and demolish/subsequently rebuild the Chicago blues sound, having relocated there in the early ’50s. After hearing Howlin’ Wolf, even legendary producer Sam Phillips was astounded, saying that “this is where the soul of man never dies.”

Burnett was born in White Station, Mississippi, in 1910 and was named after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. Always tending toward a large physical presence, he garnered all manner of nicknames, including “Big Foot Chester” and “Bull Cow.” According to Burnett, he got the name “Howlin’ Wolf” from his grandfather, who would often tell him stories about the howling wolves who lived nearby and how they would get him if he misbehaved. Of course, there are other accounts (even from Burnett himself) that say that the name was given to him by his musical idol Jimmie Rodgers-so any absolute truth on the matter is obscured by the passing of years.

In 1930, Burnett happened to meet Charlie Patton, one of the most popular bluesmen working in the Mississippi Delta. After watching him perform for some time, the two became friends and Patton eventually taught Burnett how to play the guitar. Other influences were Tampa Red, Tommy Johnson and Ma Rainey, musicians whose distinctive blues stylings helped shape the way the young guitarist approached the genre on his terms.

And unlike many other blues singers of his time, Burnett initially found quite a bit of success in his home state and, later on, in Chicago. His early singles, “Moanin’ in the Moonlight” and “How Many More Years,” found traction on radio stations across the South and even followed him as he made his trek northward. These two songs specifically were recorded by Phillips in his Memphis studio and were sold to Leonard and Phil Chess for release on their record label. Burnett was eventually signed to Chess Records, and in 1959, his debut album, “Moanin’ in the Moonlight,” was released.

With songs produced by Phillips, the Chesses and blues musician Willie Dixon, “Moanin’ in the Moonlight” acted as a sort of blues primer for many people. The songs are full of shambling blues melodies, razor guitar riffs and Howlin’ Wolf’s deeply affecting voice. It’s the kind of voice that can shake the walls and floors of the studio until they are ground down to rubble but can also walk along a beautifully arranged melody without pausing to take a breath.

Tracks such as “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” have gone on to become blues staples and been covered numerous times by many artists. He wrote all but two of the songs, those being Dixon’s “Evil” and Roosevelt Sykes’ “Forty-Four” (although Burnett was erroneously credited for the latter one). “Forty-Four”-or “44 Blues” as it’s sometimes called-is a blues standard, but Sykes was the first singer to give it lyrics and record it as such in 1929. That being said, with Wolf’s denser blues style and gruff vocal tendencies, the track took on a menacing and gloomy tone, which set it firmly apart from its previous incarnations.

The blues has always felt a bit more raw, ragged and rough around the edges than some of its familial musical brethren-the sentiment is darker, more clouded in doubt and mystery. And Howlin’ Wolf played to those tendencies perfectly. His music is angry, with his guttural howls reverberating in your chest long after the songs die away. From blistering riffs to ghostly vocals, he seems to bleed the blues, leaving himself and his listeners covered in sweat and overcome with a sense of intense desperation.

And on “Moanin’ in the Moonlight,” Howlin’ Wolf puts the blues on display in all its stomping and jagged glory. It’s a free-for-all-with notes and syllables vainly trying to escape from his booming blues speech. He was a true purveyor of the genre, an honest-to-goodness blues spokesman who lived the music and came out on the other side forever changed, as is anyone hearing this record for the first time. It’s a baptism by fire-and you can see the light by laying the needle to the groove or simply pressing play.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.