“On Howlin’ Wolf and the Chicago/Northern Bias Prevalent in Rock History”

Wikipedia has Howlin’ Wolf as a “Chicago blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player.” Now, right away, this didn’t sit right with me.

I mean, to me, the guy is just antithetical to Chicago in every way. He’s not a city slicker — he doesn’t grasp onto trends and stylistic wrinkles to make his statements. His music is raw and emotional and what’s more, he had always been a temperamental individual, prone to hurting barnyard animals in his youth [1]. Just imagine what a big city would do to a short fuse like that… let’s hope he had a healthy reefer stash during his time up north.

Now, I realize that I’m demoting the “Chicago” element of Howlin’ Wolf, his disposition, his art and his overall figure, and that I’m doing so for reasons based purely on theory, or inclinations, as it were. Well, let’s just take a look at Wikipedia’s definition of “Chicago Blues.” The journal states that “Key features that distinguish Chicago blues from earlier traditions, such as Delta Blues, is (sic) the prominent use of electrified instruments, especially the electric guitar, and especially the use of electronic effects like distortion and overdrive.” I would later learn, from reading further parts of the article, that this “distortion” mechanism only encompassed making instruments “heavily amplified to the point of distortion.” The term “overdrive” just means turning up the volume on one of the amp’s channels to a point higher than the default setting. So the entirety of “Chicago Blues”’ distinctions, apparently, can be reduced to switching to electric instruments and making modifications on the sound volume. If you ask me, they’re initiating some pretty high, ambitious talk for what amounts to a pretty menial level of sonic distinction or artistic innovation. 

Not unimportantly, when he moved up to Chicago for his career, Howlin’ Wolf lassoed his former, Memphis guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, to complete his band. Now, “Memphis Blues,” itself, is kind of a thing, or a “big deal,” if you will, at least according to Wikipedia: “After World War II, as African Americans left the Mississippi Delta and other impoverished areas of the South for urban areas, many musicians gravitated to the blues scene in Memphis… and recorded some of the classic electric blues” [2]. Hey, isn’t that what they just said typified the “Chicago Blues” — the use of electric instruments?

So as far as I can tell, “Chicago Blues,” an entity that from experience I typically find hopelessly bland and pointless, has not been “defined,” in any regard, or at least has not been distinguished from other possible terms like “Memphis Blues”; “St. Louis Blues” or, God forbid, “blues rock,” if we’re into actually getting pertinent with things. Another reason for my expressed compunction against the existence of the general entity of “Chicago Blues” is that there doesn’t seem to be any one, specific character or figure acting as a Chicago bastion which would have been directive within artistic endeavors, as it were, per se. The reason for Howlin’ Wolf relocating to Chicago, that is, was just the prevalence of Chess Records, which was founded by a couple of white guys and seems notable primarily for buying power and resources, nary artistic uniqueness or any kind of inspiration of the muse, as it were. So the basis of Chicago Blues is money… that’s what I’m saying, essentially. This should be contrasted, of course, with Memphis, wherein certain key founding blues figures were Sam Phillips, who, before founding Sun Records (which would go on to house Elvis, et. al.) had worked locally as a DJ and a studio hand, and B.B. King, who is quoted as having said “Beale Street is where it all started for me [3]. The first headquarters of Chess was 2120 S. Michigan Ave… do you ever hear anyone say “Michigan Ave. is where it all started for me?” Sure, hotel bellhops. In fact, I’d lay any bet that any purported fan of “Chicago Blues” would fail to even generalize as to what part of “town” the movement started in, was centralized in, or where it sees its legend most effectively and appropriately maintained. Chicago Blues is a bloodless attempt at artistic authenticity based on a money grab by some 1950s white dudes and is not earmarked by any element of musical inspiration or seminal creation, but rather the general, sociological bias and cinematic quality favoring the Windy City over the South [4]. 


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howlin%27_Wolf.


[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_blues.


[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B.B._King.


[4] Now that I think about it, The Blues Brothers, which is a pretty juvenile and stupid film, in the first place, plays as just as much of a charade making fun of those purporting to carry on blues traditions, as it does an endorsement of the original art form or its propagation. 


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