A dude making time with another’s woman has to cut out before he gets caught by his rival: it’s one of the oldest and most commonplace themes in the blues. But sexual poaching and its consequences becomes a life and death drama in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom”. He invests the song with such fearful intensity you’d think it was one of Robert Johnson’s demonic hellhounds on his trail, not some pissed-off boyfriend.
“Down in the Bottom”, like so many tracks on Rocking Chair, is a Willie Dixon song with a lineage that goes back several decades prior to its composition. In 1936, a blues singer with the wonderful moniker Bumble Bee Slim cut a side for Decca called “Meet Me in the Bottom”, which was a reworked version of one of his earlier tunes, “Hey Lawdy Mama”. “Meet me in the bottom, bring my boots and shoes”, he sang. “Oh lawdy mama, great God almighty / Meet me in the bottom, bring my boots and shoes / I’ve got to leave this town, I got no time to lose.”
Dixon changed the lyrics, dropping the “Oh lawdy mama, great God almighty” line and revised the tune, but his “Down in the Bottom” is a transformation of Bumblebee Slim’s song as much as “Wang Dang Doodle” is a re-written “Bull Dagger’s Ball”. Note the similarity to “Meet Me in the Bottom” in the opening lines of Dixon’s version: “Well now meet me in the bottom / Bring me my running shoes / Well I’ll come out the window / I won’t have time to lose.” “Down in the Bottom” is also highly reminiscent of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, a traditional that’s one of the most recorded numbers in blues history.
“Down in the Bottom” is a classic 12-bar blues straight from the Mississippi Delta. Wolf sings the hell out of it, and he accompanies his vocal with slide guitar, alternating slippery melodic lines with choppy rhythmic chords, giving the song its propulsive force. Hubert Sumlin recalled that when Wolf couldn’t find his slide in the studio, he broke off the neck of a bottle and used it instead, which is what the early Delta bluesmen did and why the style was originally called “bottleneck”.
In 1966, archivist Alan Lomax brought together a number of veteran blues artists—including Howlin’ Wolf—who were appearing at that year’s Newport Folk Festival and had them filmed as they performed on a set modeled on a southern juke joint. In one extraordinary segment, Wolf explains the blues and the meaning of “Down in the Bottom”, while the singer and guitarist Son House drunkenly mouths off in the audience. Wolf responds to the older man, at first mildly, then angrily, rebuking him for his alcoholism (Wolf’s biographers Mark Hoffman and James Segrest, in their account of the incident, say that Son House at the time suffered from “wet brain”—alcoholic dementia). When he begins “Down in the Bottom”, he’s clearly still disturbed by the confrontation, and both he and the band sound tentative, off their game. But Wolf gets it together, turning in a fierce vocal and showing off his formidable slide guitar skills, which often were underrated.
Chess Records released Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom” in 1961, as the b-side of the playful “Little Baby”. Just three years later, five of his most devoted acolytes—the Rolling Stones—cut it when they came to Chicago to record at Chess (never included on any of their albums, it’s available on the 1978 bootleg The Black Box and as a YouTube clip). In 1995, they dusted it off for several dates on their European tour. The 1964 version is fun (dig Brian Jones’ harp solo), but they sound like enthusiastic kids and apt pupils. Thirty-one years later, they sound like they know what the song’s about. It’s a confident, mature version, and Wolf, who with his wife Lillie was the Stones’ guest at their Chicago concerts, surely would have approved.