Bluesman Chester Arthur Burnett was born in West Point, Mississippi on June 10, 1910. He played the guitar, played the harmonica, sang the blues and was a leading performer in the Mississippi Delta and Chicago blues scene. The electric guitar was loud. Loud enough for Chester to compete with the swing bands of his time. Most, if not all, of his songs were about his life. Stories about working on the plantation, or living near the railroad, or killing a man with a cotton hoe over a woman. Before he left the Mississippi Delta to Memphis after World War II, he met Charley Patton, the father of the Delta Blues, who taught him guitar and showmanship, moves like playing the guitar over the shoulder, between the legs and throwing it up to the sky.
It wasn't just the guitar that was loud, so was Chester's voice. And it got louder as his living conditions got tougher. His massive body, weighting up to 300 pounds, both scared and impressed people. Howlin' Wolf, the name his grandfather gave him, would become an important influential figure in the genre. "Spoonful," a song which has become a blues standard and metaphor for deviant pleasures, was first recorded by Charley Patton in 1929 as "A Spoonful Blues", and then recorded in 1960 as "Spoonful" by Howlin' Wolf. Many musicians such as The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix -- just to name a few -- went on to interpret "Spoonful" as varying obsessions of love, sex, or drugs. Recently, The Tomás Doncker Band has been added to the list as they have re-imaged the music of the legendary musician on their new EP by hollering Wolf's spirit back to life.
A strong believer that music should shape an experience that moves people, Tomás Doncker is respectfully paying homage to a musician who embodies that same sentiment. The Howlin' Wolf EP, a six song soundtrack for a theatrical performance entitled Diablo Love, will be performed for free this August at Marcus Garvey Park in the Harlem section of Manhattan, NY. It is a story about a lost soul, Baliel, on a mission to find a replacement for his spot in hell. But, Baliel is "shook down by love" and faced with having to make a choice between unconditional love and diablo love. In synch with the tradition of the bluesman, the tension between the sinful and the believers goes back to the roots when Black ministers from the Mississippi Delta called the blues the product of the devil. Doncker's version of "Spoonful" successfully reiterates the message that most people would lie, cry or die for a spoonful of pleasure. And in "Smokestack Lightning" Doncker reminds his listeners that the Blues came from way back and what is going on today is not the Blues.
What we now call the Blues came about at the end of the nineteenth century as a synthesis of different black music from musicians around the south. After the civil war, in places where hard work and hardship prevailed, the blues thrived. The period after slavery found black Americans facing institutionalized racism -- just as difficult as slavery itself. The advances achieved by the Reconstruction were stripped away by things such as Jim Crow laws, inadequate education and dead-end employment. They adopted the folk ballad tradition creating ballads about black characters, ballads that were sung accompanied with a guitar and other instruments about folks who moan about their dissatisfaction, often addressing not the causes of the oppressive condition, but the pressures in the black communities.
During the onset of World War II, blacks began migrating northward in the hopes of economic opportunity. They brought the blues with them into places like industrial cities, prisons, underworld gambling, as well as environments like house parties, picnics, parks and street corners. Blues musicians found ways to incorporate blue notes on instruments by using techniques such as bending the strings of a guitar, sliding a knife or bottleneck along the strings, bending notes on the harmonica and playing adjacent black and white keys on a piano. The demands of urban life transformed the blues into a louder, harder, bigger sound just like the cities the bluesmen were living in. As a result, the blues rose into popularity after being considered the lowest of the social ladder.
The most important element was known as a holler. The holler, a melody sung by a solo singer, was expressed through moaning, humming, whistling, and whooping, a response to the circumstance. And in "Smokestack Lightning" Tomás Doncker reaches into the bottom of this abyss with his raw whooping lines. His version of Howlin' Wolf's song "Smokestack Lightning" is more of a hard rock blues; but, definitely conveys the original emotion of dark brooding -- the raw elements and power of the bluesman.
You can listen to The Tomás Doncker Band's Howlin' Wolf EP on BandCamp.