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Digging the Delta roots of Howlin’ Wolf

Island author reads from the first complete biography of the bluesman.

At 6 feet 3 inches, he was always the biggest man in the room.

His appetites were huge, and he drew women like a magnet.

But when he opened his mouth to sing, the music – not the mystique – was the point.

Born in 1910, Chester Burnett, a Mississippi sharecropper’s son, became a Delta blues legend, singing with a ferocity that raised the hairs on the collective necks of the white Mississippians and earned him his nickname: Howlin’ Wolf.

Islander Mark Hoffman documents the extraordinary singer’s life in “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life of Howlin’ Wolf” (Pantheon, 2004), from which Hoffman reads here June 17.

Written with Alabama’s James Segrest, the work is the first comprehensive biography of a man who shaped the sounds of vocalists from Elvis to the Beatles.

“I was playing music in the late 1960s,” Hoffman said. “I played in a rock and roll band with a bunch of high school kids and we were listening to what was hip and hot at the time: The Rolling Stones, The Band, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, all of those people.

“And all of those people were influenced by Howlin’ Wolf.”

Although familiar with “the Wolf,” it would be years before Hoffman had lived enough to be able to appreciate the sometimes raw-sounding blues.

“They did not appeal to me,” he said. “I don’t think blues is for young people; it’s for middle-aged people and older. Blues talks about mortality and morality. Young people don’t think about those things as much.”

By the time of Howlin’ Wolf’’s death in 1975, Hoffman was a fan, listening to the Wolf, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. But he came to fully appreciate the blues, he says, when he worked for Microsoft in the late 1980s.

The pressure-cooker environment of the Redmond campus helped him make sense of the blues.

In 1994, a year after quitting his job, Hoffman took a trip to the Mississippi Delta for 10 days.

He sought out Jim O’Neal, a noted blues scholar and producer.

“He was living in Clarksdale at the time,” Hoffman said, “running a record store.”

Hoffman confided that he was considering writing a book about Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. O’Neal suggested bypassing Waters, whose life had attracted numerous biographers, for Wolf, who had not.

He sent Hoffman to Segrest, who had begun to research the bluesman, and the two writers decided to collaborate.

Then came years of research and interviews with 144 rock and blues artists, from B.B. King to Bo Diddley, to reconstruct the life of the blues legend.

Turned out by his mentally unstable mother when he was just a child, Wolf walked 10 miles to a great-uncle, who took him in. Forced to pick and plant cotton seven days a week, “whupped” with a belt or switch for the slightest infraction, Wolf hid under the house whenever he could.

The rough, early years shaped his personality, Hoffman posits: “Wary to the point of paranoia – the result of his childhood physical and emotional abuse – he was, in his early years, a musician who roamed by himself: a lone wolf.”

His voice was shaped by those years as well; vocal chords damaged by tonsillitis made the famous growl.

His music was rooted in the harsh life of blacks in the Post-Reconstruction South. Blues, a form that evolved in the early 20th century from spirituals and work songs, spoke to life’s struggles.

The authors evoke the juke joints of the Delta, the dives where whiskey was slugged straight from the bottle and violence was so much a fact of life that a dead man served as a foot rest after one altercation – and everyone knew that, as long as the plantations had hands to pick cotton Monday morning, no questions would be asked about Saturday night.

In that milieu, Wolf perfected his act. He could strum while playing the harmonica, fixed in a rack, with his mouth or his nose. He could play the guitar behind his back, or – close to morning, when the dives were almost cleared – play over his head, while writhing on the floor.

Wolf developed his signature howl by adapting country singer Jimmy Rogers’ yodel.

The book follows Howlin’ Wolf as he hit the road, spreading his music in widening circles, until hits like “Smokestack Lightning,” “Back Door Man” and “Wang Dang Doodle” impelled him onto the national scene.

Hoffman and Segrest describes the mature Wolf, revered and feared for his wildness in the early days of his career, sweetened by a good marriage with Lillie Burnett. And they write about Howlin’ Wolf’s tragic end: ill with renal hypertension, but still singing, against doctors’ orders.

“We knew that the material was powerful, really powerful,” Hoffman said. “I mean, this guy had an amazing life.”

* * * * *

Bainbridge Island author Mark Hoffman presents “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” 7:30 p.m. June 17 at Eagle Harbor Books. A Q&A and book signing follow the program. Information: 842-5332.

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