Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “Wang Dang Doodle”

It sounds like the wildest party ever, with a rogue’s gallery of guests. It’s a “Wang Dang Doodle”, and Howlin’ Wolf’s spreading the word: “Tell Automatic Slim, tell Razor Totin’ Jim / Tell Butcher Knife Totin’ Annie / Tell Fast Talking Fanny / We gonna pitch a ball, down to that union hall / We gonna romp and tromp till midnight / We gonna fuss and fight till daylight / We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long”. Besides those four characters, the invitees include “Kudu-Crawlin’ Red”, “Abyssinian Ned”, “Pistol Pete”, “Fats and Washboard Sam”, “Shaky”, “Boxcar Joe”, “Peg” (just Peg?), and “Caroline Dye”.

“Wang Dang Doodle”, one of the hardest-rocking tracks on Rocking Chair, celebrates extreme, even violent pleasure. This party sounds more like a riot: “Tonight we need no rest, we really gonna throw a mess”. The revelers, Wolf promises (threatens?), will “break out all the windows” and “kick down all the doors”. Wolf certainly sounds like he can’t wait to “romp and tromp” with this rowdy crowd: he delivers the song with his typical gusto. But he actually didn’t like “Wang Dang Doodle” at all, according to the biography Moanin’ at Midnight. Co-authors James Segrest and Mark Hoffman quote the song’s writer, Willie Dixon, on Wolf’s reluctance to record it: “He hated that ‘Tell Automatic Slim and Razor-toting Jim.’ He’d say, ‘Man, that’s too old-timey, sounds like some old levee camp number’”.

“A wang-dang meant having a ball and a lot of dancing, they called it a rocking style, so that’s what it meant to wang dang doodle”, Dixon commented. “Wang Dang Doodle” is, like “The Red Rooster”, another instance of Dixon re-working older material. It is based on a lesbian blues number, “Bull Dagger’s Ball”, about a sapphic bacchanal. Dixon’s re-write sanitizes the original, turning its “Fast Fuckin’ Fannie” into a fast-talker. He also relocates the party to a Saturday night fish-fry down South: “When the fish scent fill the air, there’ll be snuff juice everywhere”.

Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Wang Dang Doodle” in June 1960, with Otis Spann on piano, Hubert Sumlin and Freddie Robinson on guitars, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below behind the drums. The ace band lays down an intense yet relaxed groove, with Hubert Sumlin’ s stinging, single-string lead guitar dominant in the mix. Wolf may have hated the “old-timey” number, but another blues singer, KoKo Taylor, built her career on it. Six years after Wolf cut the tune, Taylor, a Chicagoan with Southern roots, scored a million-selling hit with it, a feat she never repeated with her subsequent releases. She recorded several different versions and it was a fixture of her shows.

“Wang Dang Doodle” is one of the most covered tracks from Rocking Chair, recorded by the Pointer Sisters, the Grateful Dead, P.J. Harvey, Ted Nugent, and other blues and rock artists. The covers vary in quality; some are worth hearing (Taylor’s above all), others dismal. But the only version you really need is by Wolf. The guy who hated it, yet made it a classic.