It’s time for our monthly installment in the Poor Boy Blues series. Last month we gave a listen to Booker T. White’s version from a Parchman Farm Prison redording made in 1935. This month we jump even further ahead to the later 1950s (& in case you’re getting lightheaded from all this rapid time travel, I can assure you we’ll be staying in the 1950s for the next few installments.) Today’s artist is no less than the great Howlin’ Wolf (AKA Chester Burnett), one of the pioneers of the electric Chicago blues sound & a man who really lets you know why R&B stands for rhythm & blues! His version of “Poor Boy” was released on Chess Records in 1957, with “Sittin’ On Top of the World” as the B side.
Chester Burnett was born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910—odd to think of Howlin’ Wolf as a year old than Robert Johnson, since Wolf is so assoicated with electric Chicago blues & Johnson so much associated with the earlier Delta styles—& claims that the first guitar piece he learned was Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues”—taught to him by Patton himself. Wolf had deep roots in the old-time Delta blues & despite the electric sound he was so instrumental in developing, these roots are constantly on display in his music. For instance, his version of “Poor Boy” is most similar to the very “rootsy” version of the tune recorded by RL Burnside a number of years later.
Of course, in Howlin’ Wolf’s edition, we have a full-on Chicago style blues band: Howlin’ Wolf on vocals & harmonica, the great Hubert Sumlin on guitar (Sumlin was integral to Howlin’ Wolf’s sound), Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Alfred Elkins on bass & Earl Phillips on drums. A lot of writers talk about Howlin’ Wolf as a sort of primordial force, & at 6 feet 6 inches tall & “300 pounds of heavenly joy” (as he himself sang), he was unquestionably a formidable presence, with one of the most dynamic & forceful vocal styles among all blues singers; but celebrating this sort of “primitivism” may cause us to overlook the fact that Howlin’ Wolf was a talented composer who was able to synthesize the old Delta styles into a new sound, & also that he was great showman—in fact, in hearkening back to what he learned from Patton, he talked about the great Delta musician’s showmanship (what Son House called Patton’s “clowning”), & there is no doubt that this can bring a lot of dynamism to a performance. It should also remind those of who play the blues nowadays—& especially those of us who come from a much different cultural background—that this music is fun: it’s party music. Which reminds me of a great anecdote told by Elijah Wald in his book Escaping the Delta. He tells how his friend, the great blues & folksinger Dave Van Ronk was once performing at a festival & gave a rendition of “Hootchie Cootchie Man” that was “full of aggressive macho bluster.” To Van Ronk’s surprise, he was greeted by Muddy Waters when he came off stage—Waters, of course, had popularized this tune. As Wald writes:
Waters, always the gentleman, hastened to put him at ease. “That was very good son,” he said, putting his hand on Dave’s shoulder. Then he added, “But you know, that’s supposed to be a funny song.”
With that in mind—enjoy!