Friday, March 06, 2009


Smokestack Lightning, Music & Lyrics By Howlin' Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett was better known as Howlin' Wolf. He was an ass-kicker in the crafts of the blues and life, stood six foot six and traveled north and south across a border of 300 pounds. He was born in West Point, Mississippi, in a sharecropping triangle of the Delta as flat and hot as a pancake off the griddle. His were the people who invented deep blues and his mother never accepted any money from him because it came from the Devil's music.

Charley Patton taught Chester how to play guitar and Sonny Boy Williamson schooled his harmonica while living with his sister. Chester backed up Robert Johnson in juke joints as a teenager. First time I heard the Wolf too late I cursed my culture for hiding him from me and just like Sam Phillips did I said, "This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies." Chester fell in love at first sight with a girl named Lillie from a good family in an audience in West Chicago. They had kids he became a devoted dad drove a Pontiac station wagon while he succeeded and for Lillie he sloughed off illiteracy in his 40s and passed a middle-aged GED.

Near the end of his career he had painful terminal cancer but he'd still go play a set at a bar and sing stop your train darlin' let a poor boy ride. His manager Eddie Shaw would drive him back to the hospital in Chicago where his big body died in 1976. He wanted all of it not just some of it. He wanted all of it. This song is about chasing after women and experimenting with electricity and waiting for that card that's so high and wild you'll never have to deal another. Much of a muchness.

This song is about Chester Arthur Burnett and a little bitty boy inside seeing his future brown-eyed wife out in the audience. It's like those feelings you may remember when you were a little child when you woke up and the morning smiled so you tilted your head worked your mouth but the words didn't come out yet so you did what you could do and smiled back. Chester and Lillie did that. When lightning hits, it doesn't arc down from the sky. It is spit up from the ground, its undeniable frictional energy searches for some high and appropriate dense object, tenses around it and bolts up through the cradling clouds out into higher space. Smokestack Lightnin' is about thunderstorms its about how a cold front hits a warm front and how the earth we walk upon ejaculates. The lyrics:

Ah, oh, smokestack lightning
Shinin', just like gold!
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?
Ah, whoo hoo, ooo-ooh...
Whoo-ooo...

Whoa, oh, tell me, baby
What's the, matter with you?
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo-ooo...

Whoa, oh, tell me baby
Where did ya...stay last night?
A-why don't ya hear me cryin'?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo-ooo...

Whoa, oh--stop your train
Let a poor boy ride
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo-ooo...

Whoa, oh, fare ya well!
Never see, ah, you no more
Ah, why don't ya hear me cryin'?
Ooh, whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo-ooo...

Whoa, oh, who been here baby since
I, I been gone, maybe a little, bitty boy?
Girl, be on!
Ah, whoo hoo, whoo hoo, whoo hoo



13 comments:

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent said...

He used to tour in the UK and I saw him several times on TV. I could not deny his power and musicality, but he was too extroverted for my taste. It was (Blind) Snooks Eaglin who more than any singer turned me on to the blues and as I write this I ask "Whatever happened to him, I never heard of him since?” (meaning since 1963 when I had an album by him) Wikipedia tells me he died on Feb 18th 2009, aged 73. I never imagined he was so young, nor that he would have outlived Howling Wolf, who I thought of as a young upstart (because he appeared on British TV!).

Having got that bit of agenda out of the way, I do appreciate your empathy with Chester and his life and lyrics; and the way you have translated his music into prose.

Vincent said...

The album I had was Snooks Eaglin: New Orleans Street Singer (1959)

MarcLord said...

Good morning Sir Vincent!

I know Snooks too, just can only communicate a bit out of an aperture of one short life and you have to choose the sound and pictures amongst so many choices. The best thing you can do is sing a love song and my attention drifted to the Wolf tonight.

I am so glad, so thankful to be alive and privileged to know you too. I'll get to Snooks eventually.

So if I didn't tell you already the book's title is 'Who Would Jesus Fuck.' The blog suffers on the cross. Already have an editor who I'm holding back from a book deal because there ain't no deadlines and no advances with this shit. No way.

This is a spiritual journey and nothing nothing is going to get in my way and like you I have something important to say. It's all about needing to become a better man and I happen to know that Jesus went off to the east in his lost years and when he came back he was Buddhist.

Vincent said...

With a title like that you cannot fail to attract attention, though I pray the Lord protect you from the Christian equivalent of a fatwa from the Christian equivalent of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Good to hear you are going ahead so seriously. Despite my vast amount of free time, in theory (24 hours a day till death us do part), or perhaps because of it, my ideas remain divergent and exploratory.

At least according to conventional wisdom, the writing of a book, like the painting of a picture, requires a frame, or at least a rectangular boundary. Whereas the whole point of my writing is to keep travelling.

And never mind the "Sir", sir. I bear proudly the bend sinister (a mark of bastardy; lines from top right to bottom left) on my (metaphorical) heraldic shield. An exile, alien, mongrel, cuckoo in the nest.

Vincent said...

The topic (which the proposed title illustrates beautifully) is an excellent one, and I urge you not to be like me, working through topics like a Don Juan through his conquests; but faithful to your theme and swift too; for you have more to write afterwards.

MarcLord said...

I am no Don Juan but am an honest admirer and follower of Jesus and like you I'm a bastard but quite literal. Thanks for the kind words, I need them because this is like wrestling with angels.

Brother Tim said...

Thaaaaaanks for the memorieeeeees...... :D

Bee said...

Oh, how I love some Howlin Wolf - thanks for posting that:)

In the 90's, I discovered the Blues when I took a jaunt to Memphis. Tucked into an old department store front, just a block or two away from the Peabody Hotel, is a little-known rock'n'roll museum, and quite a bit of their exhibit focuses on delta blues. It's one of those rundown, mildewy little museums that never heard of humidity control, but it was the best in town. Hard Rock's got nothin' on that.

MarcLord said...

Remember how hard it was to find back then? Now it's easy. Gimme the Delta.

Bee said...

Yep, thank whatever cyber-goddess played the muse to the creators of YouTube, because at least you can find something really, really good there, if you look hard enough.

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