Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf Dark Mysteries

Smokestack Lightning

Performed and written by Howlin’ Wolf

You can listen to the original recording here and see a live performance from 1964 here. You can buy the song here from iTunes.

Imagine sitting in a small dark club on the Southside of Chicago. Gaze upon Howlin’ Wolf in all his raging glory, six foot six and three hundred pounds, eyes wide as hubcaps and shining bright as headlights, mouth like a junkyard dog, smiling like a man about to have his way. A nasty guitar note rings out.  Wolf’s voice rises from somewhere deep within, it scrapes, growls, stretches and punches; it’s full of broken stones and smashed metal, heartache and sinew. The voice comes from someone who’s taken beatings and given them out too; someone who’s known love and been betrayed by love, someone who knows raw sex of Biblical proportions. That voice is not alone. It’s backed by the one of the best blues bands ever, drums and bass working together, Hubert Sumlin’s guitar as rough and ready as Wolf’s voice. The music shakes your foundation, rattles your walls and makes you quiver in fearful joy. Women be careful cause the Wolf’s hard to resist. Men be careful cause there’s always the chance for trouble. “Ah, whoo hoo, ooh…”

Like many great songs, “Smokestack Lightning” contains great mystery. One can ask exactly what the song is about even as the grunts and howls of Wolf convey all you need to know. In the first verse, the singer calls out:

Ah, oh, smokestack lightning
Shinin’, just like gold
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
Ah, whoo hoo, ooh…
Whoo…

Wolf says he learned all he needed when working the fields of Mississippi, where he was born and grew up. Imagine this big man bent low with crops and off in the distance he hears the train, or sitting alone at night, the sound of the train rising, the “smokestack lightning.” That train is gold, freedom, the world passing him by cause he’s stuck in the darkness of Mississippi. (Johnny Cash sang about the same train in “Folsom Prison Blues.”) He moans over his fate, a moan full of anger, loneliness and darkness. In an interview, Wolf said he grew up listening to, among others, Jimmie Rodgers and he sought to imitate Singing Brakeman’s yodel, only his came out as a howl and that did Wolf just fine.

In the next verse, Wolf switches the train for his woman:

Whoa, oh, tell me, baby
What’s the, matter with you?
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo…

The moaning now comes from a wounded sexual animal, a primordial sound that comes from a place where Wolf has no words to say what he’s feeling so we only his voice, guttural and shaking, “Whoo hoo, whoo hoo.”

He confronts his woman. Picture him standing large in the doorway of a shack, looming over her. He’s angry, he’s hurt, he’s confused and he sinks it all into his voice:

Whoa, oh, tell me, baby
Where did ya, stay last night?
A-why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo…

In the next verse, the train and woman co-exist, maybe even merge. The singer’s trying to figure out what to do with his woman. The Dylan line – “I don’t know if I should kiss you or kill you” comes to mind.

Whoa, oh, stop your train
Let her, go for a ride
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo…

He’s calling out to the train or maybe the train is his woman, begging it or her to stop. Don’t worry about the refinements cause his voice can mean both. Then the enigmatic line, “Let her, go ride.” He’s sending her away or is he hopping the train or is he taking her for a ride right then and there? He trails off to a growl, “Whoo hoo, whoo hoo.”

The mystery continues in the next verse. Listen to these lines and ask if he’s leaving her or killing her?

Whoa, oh, fare ya well
Never see, ah, you no more
Ah, why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
Ooh, whoo hoo, whoo hoo
Whoo…

Why won’t he see her anymore? Is she dead or did he slay her with his love? Did he put her on the train or did he hop the train and leave her behind? The song lets the mystery flourish and his moaning, groaning and singing makes it all possible.

“Smokestack Lightning” anticipates much of the rock ‘roll to follow (how many hours did Mick and Keith spend listening to Howlin’ Wolf), though this song is the essence of the blues. The song becomes the means for dealing with this situation, the way to play out the hurt, anger, lust and longing. This is not a song about the idea of raw sexual emotion; it is raw sexual emotion.

Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Smokestack Lightning” in the Chess Records studios in 1956. He had a band for the ages backing him: Hubert Sumlin and Willie Johnson played electric guitars, Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Willie Dixon on bass guitar and Earl Phillips on drums. Wolf sang and played the harmonica. While Wolf’s voice remains the focus, it is the musicianship of the backing band that makes the song work. His singing grows in strength because of the tone set by the music from the opening singular note from Sumlin’s guitar.

Like so many great Blues artists, Howlin’ Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett, was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. His parents split and he worked his way back and forth between a mother – who did not want him – and a father who left him behind. He learned his guitar playing and much of his showmanship from Charlie Patton. Picture the young Wolf, hanging outside the roadhouse windows, hoisting himself up or standing on some boxes, to peer inside and watch Patton perform. All night, he’s out here as the men come and go a or maybe leave with a woman. He watches, he listens and begins to mimic Patton. He’s fealty to the early blues singer convinced Patton to teach him guitar. Later, Wolf learned the harmonica from his cousin, Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson.

He played as often as he could and performed backed by luminaries like his cousin and Matt Guitar Murphy. The Wolf made his way to Memphis where Sam Phillips heard him on WKEM and famously said, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’” Phillips hauled him into the studio and recorded Wolf’s first two songs (“Moanin at Midnight and “How Many More Years”). Phillips said this about Howlin’ Wolf in the studio: “His eyes would light up, you’d see the veins come out on his neck, and, buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul.”

Word got around about Wolf and he ultimately signed with Chess Records, moved to Chicago and found his fame. He and Muddy Waters contested for dominance in the local seen as rival bandleaders for years. Muddy was the nicer guy and the weaker businessman; Wolf was the stern taskmaster who took care of business for himself and his band mates.

You can listen to hours of recordings by Howlin’ Wolf. You can start with a single collection such as Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection or go much deeper with the Chess Box set. A seminal blues song, “Smokestack Lightening” has been covered by everyone from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker to the Who and The Yardbirds to the Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Soundgarden and Widespread Panic.

You can find a good online biography here. Paul Williams wrote a good appreciation of this song for the online musical magazine, Perfect Sound Forever, which you can read here. The wolf’s biographers maintain an informative website.

Both Robert Palmer (Check out his book, Deep Blues) and Pete Guralnick (chapter seven of Feel Like Going Home) write with great clarity and insight about Howlin’ Wolf and there is a De Capo press biography called Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman that’s worth checking out.

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2 Responses to “Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf Dark Mysteries”

  1. I absolutely love this song!!! I have listened to the blues all of my life and Wolf was one of the greats!!!


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