When I first heard Howlin’ Wolf, his sound was eerie and strange to me, like nothing I had ever heard before. “How Many More Years” with the word “years” held overlong until the word almost lost shape and became just an echoing sound; while the drummer was pounding out the measure under the sustained word, beating his rhythm as relentlessly as the sun shines down on a long hot day. That note was sustained and emphasized in a most unusual place for any song’s structure. And the voice powering it was naturally scratched up, a roughed out “whiskey voice” so unique that once heard there would never be any mistaking it again. Even though it was mixed in for radio play with other R&B of the day, Howlin’ Wolf altogether created a very different sound and seemed to come from a different place entirely.
That song, which streaked like an unexpected comet into the R&B top ten back in 1955, isn’t on this Chess compilation. Which when revisiting this release reminds me of a small gripe with the Folk Blues series. The radio hits like Wolf’s “How Many More Years” or Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me To Talking”, the very songs that dragged me in, the ones I could never find copies of, weren’t included. But a lot of other great ones are, spanning the range from Wolf’s rawer blues sounds from 1953 all the way through his more contemporary electric approach in 1965. The collection opens with a mighty pounce, with the hard jumping sound of the “Killing Floor”. The title might be scarier than the content, which is about being feeling very badly treated and wanting to get some real distance away from who or what’s causing those feelings.
There are some dire blues, though. Recorded in 1956, “Natchez Burning” is a sorrow drenched accounting of a fire that took place in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940. A disaster that still is ranked as one of the worst fires in a public place, the Rhythm Club erupted in flames when the old club was packed with people looking forward only to an evening of good times, but 198 people died horribly that night. This holocaust was followed just two years later by the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in New York City; the death toll there was twice as high, but that disaster received much more attention from the press. Years later, I’d already heard and read history about the Cocoanut Grove fire, but never anything of the Natchez. The large publicity surrounding one event couldn’t help but also remind others how they had been ignored.
In the song, the historic details aren’t spelled out in a line. The listener is drawn in by being asked, “Did you ever hear about the burning that happened way down in Natchez, Mississippi town?” The first short verse is soon followed by a list of a few names, women who were known to be there and who were lost; the depth of the tragedy can be understood when made so immediate and personal. This has the aura of a very old style of blues, the drums pace a slow march, a guitar is strummed very simply, and the piano drifts off into sounding like single notes from a mandolin. The vocals echo throughout, but the song ends with soft sweet humming, as if there can be no more words left to be said to describe this. And the short song ends abruptly with the crash of a cymbal, like a building finally caving in.
Not all are such heart-wrenching blues. There’s the slow-blues shout for “Louise” and his trademark tune, the slightly melancholy “Sittin’ On Top of the World”. Lafayette Leake dances delicately across the keys of a Louisiana style piano lead-in that sets the locale for “My Country Sugar Mama”, another slow blues grind where Wolf squeezes every drop of mood and meaning from his double entendre lyrics. A tenor and baritone sax swell and rise together, softly whispering the same lines just above his verses. For the fade-out, Wolf slips into an echo-laden harp break, where it seems he is just drawing one long deep breath in and slowly breathing out, but he harmonically encompasses the full range of notes sighed out by the pair of saxophones.
While interesting to hear, the early sides drawn from More Real Folk Blues, fully one half of this record, are simply not the top-drawer material that Wolf had also recorded during those early years. But the quality of the numbers presented on the first half of this collection might make up for that.
With all this variety of blues, shown on 24 songs, even the casual listener will learn that the blues need not follow predictable structure, and that every song is played differently. If music is at all important to your life, you should make it a point to listen to some of the blues greats, like Howlin’ Wolf. There were great, great blues once upon a time.