Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf

Article excerpt

Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf. By James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. (New York: Pantheon, 2004. Pp. xvii, 398. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, discography, sessionography, bibliography, index. $25.00.)

Deep Blues, Robert Palmer's now-classic blues history, carried the subtitle A Musical and Cultural History, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago s South Side to the World. This could easily be the title of this rich new biography of bluesman Howlin' Wolf, who lived one of the most famous versions of that unlikely trajectory. Other migrations shaped him too: Wolf actually came to the delta from the Mississippi hill country, and a full third of this book describes his highly successful tenure in West Memphis, Arkansas, detailing that exciting scene in its own terms rather than as a sidelight to action across the river. The cultural isolation produced by racial discrimination was crucial to his life and music. Wolf worked until his forties in the Mississippi plantation economy, playing for black sharecropper audiences. Even in Chicago he played primarily for fellow black rural migrants until the 1960s-he visited Europe before he got to the other side of Chicago.

He was an incredibly powerful figure. Even his black contemporaries described him in terms that sound now like stereotypes: beastly, evil, dangerous, eerie. But they also grasped the humor of his stage antics and the dance groove of his blues. Many later white audiences could only see and hear him as savage. Their fear and admiration fed what Elijah WaId called the "cult of the blues." WaId pointed out that white fans often understood Wolf in terms of an isolated, ancient Mississippi "folk blues tradition. …

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