Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “Tell Me”

“Each man sang a different blues”, observed Leroi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) in his classic 1963 study, Blues People. (Jones does acknowledge women singers in the book, but the generic blues artist is always male.) The blues, though connected to “the general movement of the mass of black Americans into the central culture of the country”, found its “impetus and emotional meaning” in the individual and “his completely personal life and death” .

Jones doesn’t mention Howlin’ Wolf in his book (inexplicable omission!), but his observation about the blues being foremost a music of individual expression certainly applies to Chester Burnett, an extraordinary artist whose blues, though influenced by such Delta originators as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, are entirely his own. Howlin’ Wolf’s music is so compelling because it seems such a direct, unmediated expression of his singular personality.

In Blues People Jones distinguishes between the early country blues, which he calls “folklore”, and the classic blues of the 1920s and 1930s, which he calls “entertainment”. Wolf, however, bridges both forms. He started out as a country blues singer steeped in the folklore of the Mississippi Delta but became a successful entertainer working in the recording industry and the commercial performance scene, in the United States and abroad (Muddy Waters’ career followed the same trajectory). One of his first studio efforts was a cover of Charley Patton’s “Saddle My Pony”, the title an obvious give-away of the song’s rural origins. But as his Memphis recordings from the mid-1950s make evident, Wolf was crafting modern, electric blues around the same time that rock ‘n roll was emerging, a guitar-driven and danceable style that–its southern roots notwithstanding–was unmistakably city music.

The 12 tracks that comprise the Rocking Chair album are electric Chicago blues songs that harken back to the rural south, most notably “The Red Rooster”, the record’s most down-home number. The album, as I noted in the first installment of this Between the Tracks series, has the stylistic unity and focus of a recording conceived as a whole, despite having been assembled from singles recorded from 1957 to 1961. The songs are about love and sex, the key concerns of the blues. As sequenced by Chess Records–most likely by producer Ralph Bass– the album “reads” like Wolf’s erotic diary, recording the excitement of a new love affair, the transgressive thrills of cheating, the joys of monogamy, and, in the album’s darkest number, fear and anguish as impending death forecloses a life spent in the pursuit of pleasure.

“Tell Me”, the album’s last track, is a return to darkness after the unalloyed joy of the preceding “Howlin’ for My Baby”. The song expresses an archetypal blues theme: that of nameless “trouble” threatening the singer, driving him to pack up and hit the road: “Tell me, what in the world can be wrong / Woke up this morning / Trouble knocking on my door / I wonder what the trouble / Big trouble at my door”. Wolf never says who or what is knocking at his door. He complains that his lover “don’t want me anymore”, but that’s the only specific woe in what otherwise sounds like an unnameable existential dread: “There ain’t nothing but my troubles”.

One of only two of Wolf’s own compositions on Rocking Chair, “Tell Me” is also one of the album’s oldest tracks, recorded in 1957 (before Chess made him record Willie Dixon’s material) and released as a single with “Who’s Been Talkin’”. Wolf’s country-style harmonica at the song’s beginning and middle is simple and direct, serving as a second voice like B.B. King’s guitar “Lucille” echoes his vocal lines. The innovative proto-rocker Willie Johnson plays lead guitar and Earl Phillips is the drummer; the session that produced “Tell Me” was their final one with Wolf, with whom they had a tempestuous relationship (Johnson’s heavy drinking often incurred Wolf’s wrath, and both men bristled at their demanding boss’ rules of proper comportment, on and off stage). Otis Smothers is on second guitar, Hosea Lee Kennard’s the pianist, and Adolph “Billy” Duncan riffs on tenor sax.

Wolf’s burly vocal throbs with worry and the urgent need to escape the trouble that won’t let him be. “Trouble is knocking”, he sings, repeating the line four times, as the song fades. The last thing we hear, as “Tell Me” and Rocking Chair come to an end, is Earl Phillips’ drum accents mimicking the sound of someone, or something, rapping at Wolf’s door. It’s the trouble, which Howlin’ Wolf both evokes and transcends through his sublime and “completely personal” artistry.