“Goin’ Down Slow” was written and first recorded in 1941 by St. Louis Jimmy Oden, a bluesman who (despite his moniker) was from Nashville. But the song’s definitive version came 20 years later, when Howlin’ Wolf cut it for Chess Records. From its opening bars, with Hubert Sumlin’s astringent guitar and Henry Gray’s percussive piano, Wolf’s rendition is a dramatic tour de force in three minutes and 18 seconds, and the most emotionally-shattering performance on Rocking Chair.
The song is a dialogue between two sides of a dying man’s divided self, as he contemplates his impending demise: one part philosophical, reflecting with fondness and humor on the good times he’s enjoyed; the other part anguished, venting fear and desperation in the face of death. Bassist Willie Dixon, as the ruminative ex-playa, comes in first, speaking the lines, “Man, you know I enjoyed things kings and queens will never have, and in fact kings and queens can’t never get, and in fact, they don’t even know about!” Then, at 1:09, Wolf enters, crying out in his uncanny voice, “I have had my fun / If I never get well no more / Oh my health is fading / Oh yes, I’m going down slow”.
In the second verse, Dixon jokes that although he was not a rich man, he spent like one in the pursuit of pleasure: “Now looky here / I did not say I was a millionaire / But I said I have spent more money than a millionaire / ‘Cause if I had kept all of the money I’ve already spent / I’d would have been a millionaire a long time ago / And women? Great googly moogly!”
Then Wolf, his mind fixed on the grave, pleads, “Please write my mama / Tell her the shape I’m in / Tell her to pray for me / Forgive me for my sins” (the “sins” are the very pleasures celebrated in the spoken verses). For those listeners familiar with Wolf’s biography, those lines are particularly poignant: Wolf’s mother, a hard-hearted religious zealot, drove her young son from her home and rejected him as an adult because he played “the devil’s music”. The song fades on Sumlin’s guitar and Gray’s piano, as they lead the dying man to the song’s end, and his.
Although “Goin’ Down Slow” is credited to Jimmy Oden, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon radically revised his original, both stylistically and lyrically. Oden performed the song in a rhythm and blues style, and at a faster tempo. Wolf and Dixon slowed it down, heightening the stark drama. They also cut several of Oden’s verses and added two of their own (those spoken by Dixon). Their re-workings produced a perfect marriage of sense and sound, and a blues masterpiece.
Wolf recorded “Goin’ Down Slow” in 1961; it was released as the b-side to the lesser “You’ll Be Mine”. Besides Sumlin, Gray, and Dixon, the band includes the guitarist and Muddy Waters sideman Jimmy Rogers, and Sam Lay on drums. Record buyers loved the song, and Wolf made it a staple of his shows. But when he performed it with his band, he handled Dixon’s recited verses. Lacking the startling contrast between Dixon’s fatalistic good humor and Wolf’s anguish, the live version—which can be heard on several releases (Rockin’ the Blues—Live In Germany, 1964; Live in Cambridge)—was nowhere as effective as the studio recording. In 1967, Chess Records got Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley in the studio to record as the Super Super Blues Band. The re-makes of their classic hits included “Goin’ Down Slow”.
“Goin’ Down Slow” was a favorite of some of the greatest blues and R&B artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as a number of blues-influenced rock bands. Aretha Franklin covered it on her Atlantic Records debut, Aretha Arrives. Elmore James, Little Walter, B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Witherspoon, Memphis Slim, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ray Charles, and Muddy Waters all recorded it, as did the Animals, Canned Heat, Mike Bloomfield, and Free. Led Zeppelin quoted it in its live versions of “Whole Lotta Love”, Phish played it in their ‘90s shows, and way down the food chain, Huey Lewis and the News included it on Four Chords & Several Years Ago, their 1994 album of blues and R&B covers.