Music

Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “Little Baby”

“Little Baby”, penned by Willie Dixon, is a well-crafted, catchy pop tune with clever lyrics, and Howlin’ Wolf sounds like he’s having a great time with it. You’d never guess that his partnership with its writer was so fraught with anger and resentment.

“Wang Dang Doodle” fades to the sound of Hubert Sumlin’s guitar and Howlin’ Wolf’s promise that the wild party will go “all night long, all night long”. With “Little Baby”, the mood shifts from riotous to playful and affectionate, as Wolf pledges total devotion to his love, in good times and bad. “You go and I’ll come with you little baby / You go and I'll come with you/you bet your life that I won’t quit you”, he declares. He’ll stick by Little Baby even if she runs afoul of the law and gets locked up: “You go to court / And I'll come along / You'll go to jail / And I'll go your bond / You got time, tell you what I'll do / Stay outside and wait for you”. But this love affair, and Wolf’s devotion, rests, at least partly, on the cash nexus: “You get paid / I'll hold the money”; “You bet the horses / And I'll pick up the dough”.

“Little Baby”, by Willie Dixon, is a well-crafted, catchy pop tune with clever lyrics. Howlin’ Wolf sounds like he’s having a great time with it; unlike other Dixon tunes whose words he sometimes messed up, here he gives the wryly comic lyrics their full due. You’d never guess that the partnership between singer and songwriter was so fraught with anger and resentment.

Wolf chafed at Chess Records’ insistence that he cut so many songs by the company’s chief writer because he preferred to record his own material. He felt that Chess imposed Dixon’s tunes on him because the label’s execs, the tight-fisted Leonard and Phil Chess, didn’t want to pay him royalties on his songs, which he published under his real name, Chester Burnett. On the other hand, the frères Chess were savvy businessman, and Dixon’s commercial blues made them a lot of money. Maybe with a confection like “Little Baby” (released as a single in 1961) they were hoping to repeat a previous success, “My Babe”, a Dixon-penned number that was a number one Billboard hit for blues harp virtuoso Little Walter in 1955. “My Babe” is the obvious prototype for “Little Baby”, but Dixon based that song on an even older one, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “This Train”, from 1930. The man was a crafty recycler, or, if you prefer, a master of the “folk process”.

It’s hard to argue with the quality of Dixon’s material on Rocking Chair, but Wolf’s songs were more personal and cut deeper. There’s little in the rotund bassist’s songbook as emotionally affecting as Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’”. Wolf improved Dixon’s songs by imbuing them with his own powerful presence and authority, his distinctive vocal timbre, and idiosyncratic phrasing. And maybe he should’ve shared writing credits on a number of them. According to Wolf’s biographers James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Dixon would come up with the basic concept and lyrics of his songs but generally left the arrangements to others. Francis Clay, a drummer who worked with Muddy Waters and Wolf, even claimed, “Everybody wants to credit Willie Dixon as the composer, but he was the lyricist”.

The song’s provenance and Wolf’s attitude toward its writer notwithstanding, “Little Baby” is a bright little gem: simple, straightforward, and utterly endearing. The Rolling Stones covered it on their 1995 release Stripped, their stab at an “Unplugged” album, comprising live tracks and versions of some of their earlier hits re-arranged and recorded live in the studio without overdubs. Their “Little Baby” sounds like they went back to school (i.e., studied Wolf’s version) before they cut it. It has the original’s jaunty spirit, as well as great acoustic guitar work by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and one of Mick Jagger’s least mannered vocal performances since the blues-crazed kid from London became a global superstar.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image