Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf - “Back Door Man”

On "Back Door Man", Howlin' Wolf offers the alluring promise of illicit midnight pleasure.

Howlin’ Wolf’s Rocking Chair album is basically a collection of sex songs, and “Back Door Man”, written for Wolf by Willie Dixon, is the most outrageous of them all. On other tracks Wolf praises a woman who “shakes like jelly on a plate” and pleads for just a “spoonful” of his woman’s “precious love”. “Down in the Bottom” finds him climbing out the window of a woman’s bedroom and hauling ass to escape her angry boyfriend. With “Back Door Man”, Wolf’s up to the same tricks, but with a different manner of egress, as the stud who services other men’s wives and slips out the back exit before they come home: “When everybody trying to sleep / I’m somewhere making my midnight creep / Every morning the rooster crow / Something tell me I got to go / I am a back door man”. He revels in his sexual buccaneering, and his ability to get away with it, crowing, “The men don’t know / But the little girls understand”.

With “Back Door Man”, Willie Dixon once again re-worked older material; the title figure is something of a southern archetype who appeared in songs by country blues singers like Charley Patton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Blind Willie McTell. Sara Martin, a popular recording artist of the 1920s, declared that “every sensible woman got a back door man” in her “Strange Loving Blues”.

Sexuality is central to the blues, whether the singer is a man or woman. Early in the history of the genre, virtually all blues singers were men, and according to Giles Oakley in his The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues, their principal theme was “the sexual relationship”. Other themes, such as catching a train and leaving town, money woes and general dissatisfaction with life, says Oakley, “sooner or later revert to the central concern”.

Angela Davis, in her Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, connects the emergence of the blues to the aftermath of slavery and the limited freedom then available to formerly enslaved black people. “With a lineage consisting largely of spirituals and work songs, the blues was the first musical genre to reflect black people's experience of ‘freedom’ in the U.S.”, Davis observes. Emancipation allowed blacks, formerly confined to the plantations where they worked, to move from place to place, and for the first time they also could determine their sexual relationships. “Consequently, themes of travel and sexuality permeate the blues”, Davis notes.

Sexual candor and provocative sexual imagery are to the blues what piety and spiritual fervor are to gospel music. You might say that the blues is as fervent about sex as gospel is about the divine. This unabashed and unapologetic carnality delighted black audiences, and also white folks turned off by bland, sexless mainstream pop music. When, as in the '50s and early '60s, white American pop was clotted with moon-June-spoon banalities, the blues (and its offspring R&B and rock ‘n roll) could be counted on to supply the body heat, as well as bluntly unsentimental attitudes toward sexual relationships. “Back Door Man” reminds us that despite the mythology of romantic love and “till death do us part”, men and women do step out on their partners, and that the frisson of transgression often makes the sex hotter.

In 1967, four blues- and Wolf-loving white boys in Los Angeles, California covered “Back Door Man” on their debut album. The Doors liked to call themselves “erotic politicians”, and Dixon’s song served them well as a manifesto for their breaking-through-boundaries stance. Drummer John Densmore recalled that when the band played the “deeply sexual” number in their shows, it “got everyone moving”.

Howlin’ Wolf cut “Back Door Man” in 1960 (Chess Records released it as the b-side of “Wang Dang Doodle”), backed by the supergroup that gives him such superb support on many of the Rocking Chair tracks: the indispensable Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar, Freddie Robinson on second guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on upright double bass, and Fred Below behind the drum kit. Wolf fully inhabits the back door man persona. There’s no sweet-talk or gentle seduction in that raw, commanding voice, but what he offers is much more alluring: the promise of illicit midnight pleasure.

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.