Friday, July 08, 2005


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 8, 2005

It’s a sad confrontation, a clash of the titans that nobody wanted to see.

The scene is backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. Ethnomusicologist and folk music heavyweight Alan Lomax, who brought several old Mississippi blues greats from the ‘20s and ‘30s to the show, had set up what he called a “juke joint” backstage where he filmed informal performances.

Son House, one of the most venerated of all the early bluesmen was there. He’s drunk and belligerent and he‘s made the mistake of interrupting the performance of Howlin‘ Wolf, the Mississippi-born Chicago bluesman, who was more of a demiurge than an entertainer.

At first Wolf tries to joke with House, who had been one of his mentors back in the Delta. “Now here’s a man with the blues,” Wolf growls.

But when House doesn’t stop, the Wolf pounces. “You had a chance with your life, but you ain’t done nothing’ with it,” he says. “You don’t love but one thing, and that’s some whiskey.”

This was captured on film and is, in fact the most intense moment in Don McGlynn’s 2003 documentary The Howlin' Wolf Story: The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll, which is showing Saturday and Wednesday at Santa Fe Film Center.

There’s lots to like about this film. One of my favorite parts is the home movie footage from Wolf drummer Sam Lay’s camera of 1960s gigs at long-gone Chicago joints like Sylvio’s -- where you can spot Chicago blues royalty like Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter in the audience.

But the scene that keeps haunting me is the one with Son House. It’s hard to watch and embarrassing to everyone involved, including present-day viewers. The hard fact is Wolf is right.

House, who was eight years older than Wolf, had lived an archetypal blues life. He’d been a traveling troubadour, a preacher and a hobo. In his early years he’d killed a guy and served time in the infamous Parchman prison. He had a brief recording career in the ‘30s, then disappeared until 1941 when Lomax tracked him down, then disappeared again until the early ‘60s when folkie revivalists “rediscovered” him. House had spent most of those missing years working as a Pullman porter in Rochester, N.Y.

Wolf, born Chester Burnett, on the other hand, never turned his back on his music. Learning guitar from none other than Delta blues founding father Charlie Patton himself, Wolf went to West Memphis, Ark., where he hooked up with Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, then to Chicago, where, along with his friend and rival Muddy Waters, he pioneered electric blues.

His music and his wild stage persona personified the rough and raucous spirit of the blues, but, as becomes apparent in McGlynn’s film, he was a hard-working, big-hearted conscientious man — which counters the blues stereotype.

He paid unemployment insurance for his band, even back in the ‘50s. He was a family man. His grown daughters recall how he bought them back fancy clothes when he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. He was intent on self improvement, taking classes to learn to read and write when he was in his ‘50s and even taking music lessons to improve his guitar playing.

Like most the bluesmen we know and love from that era, Wolf was born under the bad signs of extreme poverty and racial oppression. His own mother, a religious fanatic, threw him out of the house as a child of 13. (In the film his longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin tells how Wolf, while touring Mississippi, came across his mother. He tried to give her some money, but she threw it on the ground and stomp on it. She didn’t want any money that came from the Devil’s music.)

So when Wolf tells Son House, “You had a chance with your life, but you ain’t done nothing’ with it,” it’s coming from the realization that he could have ended up like House -- drunk, broke and living on past glories -- had he not worked so hard.

The Howlin' Wolf Story will show at The Santa Fe Film Center at Cinemacafe, 1616 St. Michael's Drive 4 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are Tickets $8; $7 for students and seniors; $6 for film festival members.

Also Recommended:

* Blues With a Message
by Various Artists. In the minds of too many modern fans, blues is nothing but party music, celebrating drinking, fighting, gambling and -- especially -- skirt-chasing.

But besides other mules kicking in his stall, sometimes the wolf knocks at a bluesman’s doors. In other words, besides the songs about drinking and fornicating, there’s also a tradition of socially conscious blues tunes.

Blues with a Message is a collection of 18 songs that deal with issues of poverty, racism, war, prison and even one medical epidemic (“The 1919 Influenza Blues” by pianist/singer Essie Jenkins.)

The artists represented here are mainly older acoustic players, such as former Mississippi Sheik Sam Chatman, who sings about racial stereotypes in “I Have to Paint My Face” and former inmate Robert Pete Williams, who tells a long sad tale called “Prisoner’s Talking Blues”

There’s also some electric blues, such as Juke Boy Bonner’s “What Will I Tell the Children,” (“Listened, looked around all day for a job/and I looked almost every place/It’s hard to come home and find hunger on your children’s face.”) and “Little Soldier Boy” a Korean War-era song by a Detroit singer named Doctor Ross.

One of the most uplifting songs here is “Why I Like Roosevelt” by sacred steel icon Willie Eason. He praises FDR (“Racial prejudice he tried to rule out/Invited Negro leaders to the White House …) while recalling the dark days of his predecessor (“After Hoover had made the poor man moan Roosevelt stepped in, they was a comfortable home.”)

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