Music

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 there's something mysterious about it. What exactly is in that 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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.