Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fathers, Mothers, Sons and Daughters

When I see certain videos and images of Howlin’ Wolf in his khaki work pants and thick rimmed black reading glasses I see my father. My dad was ten years older than Wolf.  They came from different worlds but from the same time.

And when I see Son House falling to pieces under the influence of tragic amounts of alcohol I see my father, too.

He died when I was fifteen, before I could really know him, and it’s probably not accidental that I found Chuck Berry at about the same time.

In the video excerpt posted below, Howlin’ Wolf first talks about the blues in financial terms.  I’m not going to argue about the blues with Howlin’ Wolf-- he wins.

But Wolf’s greatest suffering, from what I've read and heard, was caused by his mother’s steadfast rejection of her own child. She cast him out, and never let him back into her life. She didn’t approve his singing “the Devil’s music.”  When he tracked her down in his 60s she pulled a crumbled bill he had slipped into her apron and crushed it under her foot.  Her rejection was steadfast even when her son lay dying of kidney disease and called for her.  (Did she ever listen to his version of "Going Down Slow?")  Luckily, when his mother sent him packing as a child, he was able to find his dad, who was a good one. Wolf walked 75 miles barefoot to find him.

According to Wikipedia one old song goes:

If I mistreat you gal, I sure don't mean you no harm.
I'm a motherless child and I don't know right from wrong.

So much of the blues is about that link, broken or not, between parent and child.  So much of what brings us to the blues is about that link.

Wolf’s son rejected him, too; and maybe with reason.  Wolf treated Hubert Sumlin like his own child, and they fought and argued and loved each other till the end and beyond. Other musicians in his band over the years say that Wolf acted “like a father,” giving them “fatherly advice.”

The relationships are always so strong. Read anything by Bob Margolin talking about Muddy Waters. Watch how Wolf, Waters and Chuck Berry work and worked with the young musicians who idolized them, working to get it right. It’s no accident that one of Muddy Water’s records was called “Fathers and Sons.”  The arguments with Keith Richards are family matters, not possible with a stranger or aquaintance.

Keyboardist Bob Lohr remembers Chuck Berry on stage first introducing his son, Charles; then bassist Jimmy Marsala as “my other son;” and then acknowledging Lohr at the electric piano, saying “You’re my son, too, Robert—more than you know.” The acknowledgment affected Lohr more than Berry probably knows.

And I can remember him on stage, rushing left, rushing right, eyes wide, mouth agape, acknowledging a crowd of shaggy young people by hollering “All my children! All my beautiful children!”

Berry seemed to have the strongest possible bond with his mother and father.  And today you see it carried onto the stage where he performs with his son, his daughter, and his grandson, and calls the other musicians his children.  Wolf was rejected by his own mother but raised two stepdaughters and a guitar genius as if they were his own offspring. 

I think a lot of what we look for in this music is something like that bond.  This music goes deep.  It goes to the very bottom of all things.

Anyway, when I see Wolf scolding his old friend House, I wish the Wolf side of dad had somehow whooped the House side. The Wolf side was so much stronger; but unlike Wolf, I’m not sure he knew that.


Robert said...

...I saw Wolf play a couple of times live across from Berry Park on Buckner Road back in 1970-'71 when I was still a mere teenager. At that time, the land was used by a black skeet shooting club, the Kingsmen's Gun Club. They would throw major blues events on big holidays...4th of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day etc. One such gig featured Wolf and Junior Parker. I think Muddy played there at one point also, and Albert King was a regular there. After one gig, I sat down and talked with Wolf for about 1/2 hour...he told me to "stay away from drugs and easy pussy"...his hands were even bigger than Chuck's...almost like catcher's mitts. On that gig, Wolf had Hubert Sumlin in his absolute prime on guitar, plus S.P.Leary on drums-easily one of the best blues drummers of all time...he often recorded w/ Otis Spann. Absolutely amazing...probably one of the best blues shows I've ever heard. One other thing pops up in my Wolf's station wagon pulled up and the doors opened, a bunch of half-pint whiskey/gin bottles came tumbling out...

Peter said...

I remember the gun club from my ill-fated visit to Berry Park! Dang, I wish I had seen Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters perform, or even that I'd paid more attention to their music as a kid. Ah well-- live and learn! Peter