Howlin’ Wolf: Rocking Chair Blues - "Down in the Bottom"

Sexual poaching and its consequences become a life and death drama in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom”.

A dude making time with another’s woman has to cut out before he gets caught by his rival: it’s one of the oldest and most commonplace themes in the blues. But sexual poaching and its consequences becomes a life and death drama in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom”. He invests the song with such fearful intensity you’d think it was one of Robert Johnson’s demonic hellhounds on his trail, not some pissed-off boyfriend.

“Down in the Bottom”, like so many tracks on Rocking Chair, is a Willie Dixon song with a lineage that goes back several decades prior to its composition. In 1936, a blues singer with the wonderful moniker Bumble Bee Slim cut a side for Decca called “Meet Me in the Bottom”, which was a reworked version of one of his earlier tunes, “Hey Lawdy Mama”. “Meet me in the bottom, bring my boots and shoes”, he sang. “Oh lawdy mama, great God almighty / Meet me in the bottom, bring my boots and shoes / I've got to leave this town, I got no time to lose."

Dixon changed the lyrics, dropping the “Oh lawdy mama, great God almighty” line and revised the tune, but his “Down in the Bottom” is a transformation of Bumblebee Slim’s song as much as “Wang Dang Doodle” is a re-written “Bull Dagger’s Ball”. Note the similarity to “Meet Me in the Bottom” in the opening lines of Dixon’s version: “Well now meet me in the bottom / Bring me my running shoes / Well I'll come out the window / I won't have time to lose." “Down in the Bottom” is also highly reminiscent of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, a traditional that’s one of the most recorded numbers in blues history.

“Down in the Bottom” is a classic 12-bar blues straight from the Mississippi Delta. Wolf sings the hell out of it, and he accompanies his vocal with slide guitar, alternating slippery melodic lines with choppy rhythmic chords, giving the song its propulsive force. Hubert Sumlin recalled that when Wolf couldn’t find his slide in the studio, he broke off the neck of a bottle and used it instead, which is what the early Delta bluesmen did and why the style was originally called “bottleneck”.

In 1966, archivist Alan Lomax brought together a number of veteran blues artists -- including Howlin’ Wolf -- who were appearing at that year’s Newport Folk Festival and had them filmed as they performed on a set modeled on a southern juke joint. In one extraordinary segment, Wolf explains the blues and the meaning of “Down in the Bottom”, while the singer and guitarist Son House drunkenly mouths off in the audience. Wolf responds to the older man, at first mildly, then angrily, rebuking him for his alcoholism (Wolf’s biographers Mark Hoffman and James Segrest, in their account of the incident, say that Son House at the time suffered from “wet brain”--alcoholic dementia). When he begins “Down in the Bottom”, he’s clearly still disturbed by the confrontation, and both he and the band sound tentative, off their game. But Wolf gets it together, turning in a fierce vocal and showing off his formidable slide guitar skills, which often were underrated.

Chess Records released Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom” in 1961, as the b-side of the playful “Little Baby”. Just three years later, five of his most devoted acolytes -- the Rolling Stones -- cut it when they came to Chicago to record at Chess (never included on any of their albums, it’s available on the 1978 bootleg The Black Box and as a YouTube clip). In 1995, they dusted it off for several dates on their European tour. The 1964 version is fun (dig Brian Jones’ harp solo), but they sound like enthusiastic kids and apt pupils. Thirty-one years later, they sound like they know what the song’s about. It’s a confident, mature version, and Wolf, who with his wife Lillie was the Stones’ guest at their Chicago concerts, surely would have approved.

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

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

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
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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