Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’

“Spoonful” is one of the best-known and most recorded songs in the history of the blues, and like many great blues numbers, there’s a bit of mystery about it. “It could be a spoonful of coffee / It could be a spoonful of tea / But just a little spoon of your precious love / Is good enough for me”. There’s been a fair amount of speculation about the song’s meaning in the 50 years since Howlin’ Wolf recorded the Willie Dixon number. What exactly is in that spoonful? Is “love” really liquefied heroin? Or, as some have suggested, is “spoonful” a metaphor for spooge?

Willie Dixon tried to put the conflicting interpretations to rest in his autobiography, I Am the Blues. “The idea of ‘Spoonful’ was that it doesn’t take a large quantity of anything to be good”, he observed. “If you have a little money when you need it, you’re right there in the right spot, that’ll buy you a whole lot. If a doctor give you less than a spoonful of some kind of medicine that can kill you, he can give you less than a spoonful of another that will make you well”. Asked about heroin, he replied, “People who think ‘Spoonful’ was about heroin are mostly people with heroin ideas”.

Howlin’ Wolf favored a sexual metaphor–or rather, he literalized one when he played the song in his shows. He’d grab a big cooking spoon that drummer Sam Lay bought him at a flea market and brandish it at crotch-level, engaging in blatantly phallic monkeyshines. Wolf would work this raunchy shtick no matter the crowd. On two occasions–a benefit for a black Little League team, the other the International Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., before an audience of gowned and tuxedoed dignitaries–many were not amused. At the benefit, someone closed the stage curtains on Wolf to spare the kiddies the sight of him getting busy with a kitchen utensil.

Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Spoonful” in 1960, backed by a top-notch studio band comprising the guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Freddie Robinson, pianist Otis Spann, Fred Below on drums, and Dixon on the double-bass. But its origins, like those of several other Dixon compositions on Rocking Chair, go back several decades further. It’s adapted (loosely) from Charley Patton’s 1929 “A Spoonful Blues”, which derives from Papa Charlie Jackson’s 1925 recording, “All I Want Is a Spoonful”. The song’s tailor-made for Wolf; like his own “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “I Asked Her for Water”, it’s the kind of modal chant with which he crafted his incomparable brand of gripping drama.

“Spoonful” fits Wolf stylistically like a glove, yet there’s a dissonance between the singer and the song. It’s hard to believe that Wolf, a man known for his big appetites (for food, booze, sex, and performing), would ever be satisfied with a spoonful of anything. But, consummate artist that he was, he makes you believe he’s so desperate for his woman’s “precious love” that he’d accept even a stingy dose of it.

“Spoonful”, like everything on Rocking Chair, is compact, clocking in at two minutes and 42 seconds (like most of the tracks, it was released as a 45 RPM single, in an era when singles rarely exceeded three minutes, so the concision is due to commercial considerations as much as artistic ones). Wolf and his band would stretch out during his shows, since he loved working a crowd and letting his gifted sidemen, and especially Sumlin, shine. But his studio recordings have a concentrated force that’s missing in the cover versions by more prolix artists.

Take Cream, for example. Its 1968 double album Wheels of Fire features a 16-minute-plus live version of “Spoonful” recorded at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Bassist Jack Bruce sings it, painfully straining to sound soulful and missing by a mile. And when he’s done, the trio takes off on a long, bombastic jam, led by Eric Clapton, whose playing here Robert Christgau nailed with an analog-era analogy: Freddie King at 78 rpm, with the needle stuck. Wolf may have mimed masturbation when he played “Spoonful”, but he wasn’t jerking off.