Review: 'Moanin' At Midnight: The Life And Times of Howlin' Wolf'by Mark Hoffman

A mostly excellent account of one of the great artists of the 20th century...
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Moanin' At Midnight: The Life And Times of Howlin' Wolf Chester Burnett Mark HoffmanMark Hoffman provides a wealth of impeccably researched facts to reconstruct Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett's life in Mississippi as a child, his career beginnings, ascent to one of the premier blues artists of his time, setbacks, and frustrations and in the process tells the story of more than one man's life and accomplishments.

Much attention is paid to Wolf's life as a musician and those stories are invaluable and likely of most interest to most readers but there are many amazing moments in his life that had nothing to do with music. Some of these come into play after his career as a recording artist is well established, others during his early childhood years and the time he spent playing as a local hero throughout the Mississippi Delta. The most notable and gripping of these is the open question of whether or not Wolf killed a man in his younger days and whether or not he served time in prison for this incident. It says a lot about the times and conditions of the Jim Crow-era South that one black man killing another meant so little that no definitive court or prison records could be found to verify this.

Hoffman's portrait of Wolf is very sympathetic but there's no getting around his suspicious often to the point of paranoia tendencies. This isn't the kind of story many would relish telling but according to different sources, Wolf's account of this incident could vary and has some holes. One account has him admitting to the crime in Arkansas serving time in the Parchman Farm prison, which is actually in Mississippi. Was the source of this supposed confession confused? Was Wolf trying to cover his tracks? We'll never know. It's not the only instance where we're left to wonder what Howlin' Wolf did or said at any given time as he was not one to share information and some of the people he ran with may not have less than admirable intentions, poor memories, or both.

Hoffman's deferential treatment is understandable- he undertook this project because he, like the rest of us, is a fan. Unfortunately, he sometimes seems a bit strident in his praise and defense of Wolf and unfortunately at times at the expense of artists who can't or couldn't speak for themselves. Other blues books suggest Wolf could be malevolent with band members, rivals, and others, sometimes to the point of violence.

He was a confounding character. His upbringing and demeanor were essential components of how a self-made man survived and flourished. He had a paternalistic streak and a mean streak. He could be simple and shrewd, generous and harsh. He had a code and there was a reason for most of the things he did. He thought he was doing his acquaintances and friends a favor by imparting what he'd come to know along his way even if his methods of imparting that wisdom could be gruff.

A great many pages are devoted to the bewildering relationship between Wolf and his longtime musical sidekick, guitar great Hubert Sumlin. Before there was Lennon and McCartney, Mick and Keith, the Davies brothers, or the Gallagher brothers, there was Wolf and Sumlin. Sumlin was fired by Wolf more often than Billy Martin was fired by the Yankees. These two men seemed a constant source of aggravation to the other, and there are multiple accounts of violent arguments between them. Hoffman interviewed Sumlin, and the quotations and memories presented are largely loving in nature towards his former boss, yet we learn these two were seemingly always at each other. Wolf was impatient, Sumlin impulsive. Wolf was by no means a teetotaler but Sumlin was given to excess. There seemed a constant tension and it may have made them better while maintaining an ever-present state of volatility. Through it all, Wolf made some of the greatest music of the 20th century and Sumlin played a crucial role.

Moanin' At Midnight is the portrait of a complicated man who achieved musical immortality and whose influence is felt decades after his death. The scholarship is excellent and conclusions mostly sound. Howlin' Wolf is a Blues Hall of Famer, as is this book that tells his story. It's an excellent and vital read and the great one deserves nothing less.