PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


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.