MOANIN’ AT MIDNIGHT – The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman
Review by James “Sky Dobro” Walker
The book Moanin’ At Midnight – The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf is perfect for a history buff who is also a fan of American music. Howlin’ Wolf stands with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker among the giants in the blues pantheon.
Born Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910 in White Station, Mississippi, Howlin’ Wolf was a giant of a man both physically and in his impact on the early foundations of Rock and Roll. “The Wolf” stood 6’3”, weighed nearly 300 pounds, and was a powerfully built man, but all that was small compared to his influence on the future Rock and Roll bands, especially those of the British Invasion in the 1960s.
A common theme for us Baby-boomers is coming to the Blues through the backdoor of Rock and Roll. When the Rolling Stones released their third American album (The Rolling Stones, Now!) in April 1965, I was a freshman in high school, green as a pool table and just as square. I listened to a cool song on the album, “Little Red Rooster,” with no idea it was a Howlin Wolf original, nor did I have much of an idea who Howlin’ Wolf was. We Boomers were listening to blues music before we knew it was the “Blues”.
Billed as the first full-length biography of Howlin' Wolf, this critically acclaimed book was first published in hardcover, and it was updated and revised and published in paperback.
“Moanin' At Midnight” is as thorough as a biography can be, but to authors Hoffman and Segrest the project was clearly a labor of love. A dozen years, hundreds of hours of interviews, cross-country commutes to glean insights into a personal hero, the relentless pursuit of detail...the devotion is unmistakable. The book is also a valuable Blues history resource in general by virtue of its inclusion of many of the Wolf's fellow bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, and others.
It tells the heroic story of a man born in the south in the first decade of the 1900s amid grinding poverty, extreme racial prejudice, and an unhappy childhood, who found his freedom and his place in the world of the traveling blues man. His early life scarred him both physically and emotionally, and it can be heard in his music.
Wolf was a large man with a powerful, raspy voice and a keen intelligence. As the authors show, he endured “crushing poverty” and almost constant childhood physical abuse, the source of much of the anger in his music. A student of Charlie Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson, Wolf rose from the poor sharecropper's life that was typical for blacks in Mississippi's Delta region to stardom in first Memphis and then Chicago.
Segrest and Hoffman tell how Wolf was complex and unpredictable: sometimes ferocious and angry, but other times “gentle” and “sweet.” Always, however, he was a proud man and a very professional businessman and entertainer - “one of the truest, straight-forward fellas in the business.”
On Self Improvement: “Typical of Wolf’s no-nonsense work ethic was his passion for self education. Still barely literate and numerate in the 1950s, Wolf confronted the problem in his direct way: He took adult education classes in reading, writing and arithmetic at Crane High School and Wendell Phillips High School. As with his music lessons, Wolf took his 3Rs very seriously. During intermissions, Billy Boy Arnold often saw him sitting at a table with his schoolbooks , doing his homework.”
Compared to Muddy Waters: In regards to Chess Records and their relationships to Leonard Chess, “Muddy had a plantation mentality when it came to Chess Records. Leonard was the boss, and Muddy did as the boss man said. But, Wolf was a rebel who had left the plantation behind. All his life, he strove to be his own man.”
Throughout the book, Hoffman and Segrest use words like “gargantuan, ferocious and primal” to describe Wolf's persona. The surviving videos are enough to get the point across. It was not only the man's size that was intimidating, it was the way he wrapped his huge voice around a song. It was his big hands dwarfing a guitar neck or reducing a harmonica to relative invisibility.
Having read the book, you will want to see the available videos on DVD: (1) The Howlin’ Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock and Roll (Bluebird) (2) The American Folk Blues Festival – Volume Two 1962 – 1966 (Hip-O Records) (3) Devil Got My Woman – Blues at Newport 1966 (Vestapol 13049).