Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “Who’s Been Talkin'”

Pat Benatar told us back in the 1980s that love is a battlefield. But blues singers were sending that message long before the spandex-loving rocker from Long Island. Blues songs often are brutally candid about the power struggles in heterosexual relations. Violent imagery is hardly uncommon, with razors, knives, pistols, “Gatling guns” (see: Robert Johnson) and fists making recurring appearances (the minor subgenre of gay-themed blues, however, tended to be more ribald and good-humored). Bluesmen–the genre is of course male-dominated–often express mistrust of women, and sometimes misogyny as harsh as anything in rap.

Although it’s usually the man who’s the aggressor, sometimes the roles are reversed. Howlin’ Wolf recorded two of the starkest, scariest songs in the blues about “mean mistreater” women. The title of one says it all: “I Asked Her for Water (And She Brought Me Gasoline)”. In “Commit a Crime”, he tells us his woman “mixed my drinks with a can of Red Devil lye / Then you sit down watch me hopin’ that I might die”.

But in “Who’s Been Talkin’”, the Wolf is sorrowful, even regretful, over the behavior that caused his lover to leave him. She “caught the train, left me all alone”, he laments. He complains that “she’s doin’ me wrong”, and he wants to know who put the word out about his tomcatting (“Who’s been talkin’ / Everything that I do”). But he fesses up to his part in the drama: “I’m the causin’ of it all”.

One of only two songs on Rocking Chair written by Howlin’ Wolf, “Who’s Been Talkin’” also is one of the album’s oldest tracks, recorded in 1957. It is basically a superior re-make of “Going Back Home”, a tune he recorded the previous year. Wolf is backed by Hosea Lee Kennard on piano; Otis Smothers and Willie Johnson, guitars; Alfred Elkins, bass; Earl Phillips, drums, and saxophonist Adolph Duncan, who threads a sweet and sour melodica line through the song and around Wolf’s pained vocal and harmonica blasts.

“Who’s Been Talkin’” has been covered by Robert Cray, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Waits (in concert), and the Allman Brothers, who have been playing it in their recent shows, including this year’s engagement at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Warren Haynes capably handles the vocals, but the concentrated emotional force of Wolf’s indelible original is lost as the band takes off on one of their typical extended jams. With Wolf, the song’s the thing.

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