From The Pen Of Bart Webber
Sunday, October 08, 2017
Howling At The Moon-When Howlin’ Wolf Held Forth
Howling At The Moon-When Howlin’ Wolf Held Forth
One night when Sam Eaton and Ralph Morris were sitting in Johnny D’s over in Somerville [this night was several years before the recent 2015 announcement that that central spot for the blues tradition and up and coming newer musical genre was closing after a forty year run], over near the Davis Square monster Redline MBTA stop sipping a couple of Anchor Steam beers, a taste acquired by Sam out in Frisco town in the old days on hot nights like that one waiting for the show to begin and picked up by Ralph along the way when drinking his life-time scotch whiskey became verboten after a bad medical check-up about ten years before Ralph mentioned that some music you acquired kind of naturally. A lot of their conversations of late, the last few years as they slid into retirement Ralph giving the day to day operations of his specialty electrical shop over to his youngest son and Sam giving the day to day management of his high volume printing business to his longtime employee, Jimmy Jones, who held the place together at the beginning while Sam headed West with a gang of other Carver corner boys in search of the great blue-pink American West night that animated much of the late 1960s had centered on their lifetime of common musical interests (except folk music which Sam came of age with, caught the drift as it came through Harvard Square where he would hang out to get out of the house when tensions boiled o to some extent but which mostly even with Bob Dylan anti-war protest songs made him grind his teeth.
By naturally Ralph meant, you know like kids’ songs learned in school. Songs like The Farmer in the Dell, which forced you a city kid like Ralph born and raised in Troy, New York a strictly working class town then, and now, although you might not have designated yourself as such at that age to learn a little about the dying profession of family farmer and about farm machinery; Old MacDonald, ditto on the family farmer stuff and as a bonus all the animals of the farm kingdom and their distinctive noises that still rattled Ralph’s head on hard drinking night if he got melancholy for his tortured childhood; Humpty Dumpty, a silly grossly overweight holy goof of the rankest order, an egghead to boot and that didn’t mean intellectual, far from it, who couldn’t maintain his balance come hell or high water although you might not have thought of that expression, that hell or high water expression, or used it in the high Roman Catholic Saturday-go-to-confession-to confess those damns, hells, and fucks that had entered you vocabulary through osmosis and Sunday-go-to-communion-to-absolve-all-sins Morris household out in Troy where Ralph still lives; and, Jack and Jill and their ill-fated hill adventure looking for water like they couldn’t have gone to the family kitchen sink tap for their needs but thinking about it later what were they really doing up there. All this total recall, or mostly total recall showing indeed whether you designated yourself as a city kid or not you were one of the brethren, etc. you have embraced that music as a child in case you have forgotten. Music embedded in the back of your mind, coming forth sometimes out of the blue even fifty years later (and maybe relating to other memory difficulties among the AARP-worthy but we shall skip over that since this sketch is about the blues, the musical blues and not the day to day getting old blues).
Sam nodded his head in agreement then chimed in with his opinion the music of junior high school as he thought, looking behind the bartender’s head to the selection of hard liquors displayed with the twinkle of an eye, about switching over to a high-shelf scotch whiskey, Haig &Haig, his natural drink of late, despite the hot night and hot room beginning to fill up with blues aficionados who have come to listen to the “second coming,” the blues of James Montgomery and his back-up blues band. (Sam unlike Ralph suffering no medical warning about the dire consequences to his system about throwing down a few shots since his health was in better shape than Ralph, Ralph having taken a beating in that department with whatever hellious chemical his government, or rather the American government for which he refused to take any credit or blame, was throwing on the ground of Vietnam from the nightmare skies during that long, bloody lost war).
That “second coming” referring to guys, now greying guys, who picked up the blues, especially the citified electric blues after discovering the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Slim and James Cotton back in their 1960s youth, made a decent living out of it and were still playing small clubs and other venues to keep the tradition alive and to pass it on to the kids who were not even born when the first wave guys came out of the hell-hole Delta South of Mister James Crow sometime around or after World War II and plugged their guitars into the next gin mill electric outlet in places off of Maxwell Street in Chicago, nursing their acts, honing their skills.
Yeah, getting back to junior high, Sam thinking about that hormonal bust out junior high weekly music class with Mr. Dasher which made Sam chuckle a bit, maybe that third bottle of beer sipping had gotten him tipsy a little, as he thought about the old refrain, “Don’t be a masher, Mister Dasher” which all the kids hung on the poor, benighted man that time when the rhyming simon craze was going through the nation’s schools. Thinking just then that today if some teacher or school administrator was astute enough to bother to listen to what teenage kids said amongst themselves, an admittedly hard task for an adult in any era, in an excess of caution old Mister Dasher might be in a peck of trouble if anyone wanted to be nasty about the implication of that innocent rhyme. Yeah, Mr. Dasher, the mad monk music teacher (who on the side in those days, not unlike these days, when teachers couldn’t live on their teaching incomes led an old-time, old time to Sam and his classmates Benny Goodman-style swing and sway big band at special occasions and as a regular at the Surf Ballroom over in Plymouth on Friday nights), who wanted his charges to have a well-versed knowledge of the American and world songbooks. Thus you were forced to remember such songs as The Mexican Hat Dance, God Bless America, and Home On The Range under penalty of being sent up to the front of the room songbook in hand and sing the damn things. Yes, you will remember such songs unto death.
Sam and his corner boys at Doc’s Drugstore found out later that the Dasher was motivated by a desperate rear-guard action to wean his charges away from rock and roll, away from the devil’s music although he would not have called it that because he was too cool to say stuff like that, a struggle in which he was both woefully overmatched by Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck, Bo, and the crowd and wasting his breathe as they all lived for rock and roll at Doc’s Drugstore after school where he had a jukebox at his soda fountain. And they were not putting their three selections for a quarter to hear hokey Home on the Range.
Ralph agreed running through his own junior high school litany with Miss Hunt (although a few years older than Sam he had not run through the rhyming simon craze so had no moniker for the old witch although now he wished he had as he chuckled to himself and turned a little confession red although he not been into that stifling confession box on his gamy knees in many years, and it would not be nice either). Ralph added that some of the remembered music reflected the time period when you were growing up but were too young to call the music your own like the music that ran around in the background of your growing up house on the mother housewife radio or evening record player which in Ralph’s case was the music that got his parents through his father’s soldierly slogging on unpronounceable Pacific islands kicking ass against the Nips (his father’s term for the dirty bastard Japanese) and mother anxiously waiting at home for the other shoe to fall or the dreaded military officer coming up to her door telling her the bad news World War II.
You know, guys like Frank (Sinatra, the chairman of the board, that all the bobbysoxer girls, the future mothers of Sam’s and Ralph’s generation swooned over), The Andrew Sisters and their rums and coca colas, Peggy Lee fronting for Benny Goodman and looking, looking hard for some Johnny to do right, finally do right by her, etc. Other music, the music of their own generation, classic rock and rock came more naturally since that is what they wanted to hear when they had their transistor radios to their ear up in their bedrooms or could hardly wait to hear when the jukebox guy came into Doc’s to put the latest selections in (and to have his hand greased by Doc for “allowing” those desperately desired songs onto his jukebox to fill his pockets with many quarters, see he was “connected” and so along with the jukebox hand over fist money-maker cam the hand).
That mention of transistor radios got Ralph and Sam yakking about that old instrument which got them through many a hard teenage angst and alienation night. That yakking reflecting their both getting mellow on the sweet beer and thinking that they had best switch to Tennessee sipping whisky when the wait person came by again since they had moved from the bar to a table near the stage to get a better view of the band if they were to make it through both sets that night (and Ralph thinking, just this once, just for this bluesy night he would “cheat” a little on that scotch whiskey ban). This transistor thing by the way for the young who might wonder what these old geezers were talking about since it was clearly not iPods was small enough to put in your pocket and put up to your ear like an iPod or MP3 except you couldn’t download or anything like that.
Primitive technology okay but life-saving nevertheless. Just flip the dial although the only station that mattered was WJDA, the local rock station (which had previously strictly only played the music that got all of our parents through their war before the rock break-out made somebody at the station realize that you could made more advertising revenue selling ads for stuff like records, drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants, and cool clothes and accessories than refrigerators and stoves to adults).
Oh yeah, and the beauty of the transistor you could take it up to your bedroom and shut out that aforementioned parents’ music without hassles. Nice, right. So yeah, they could hear Elvis sounding all sexy, her word whether she knew the exact meaning or not, meaning all hot and bothered, according to one girl Sam knew even over the radio and who drove all the girls crazy once they got a look at him on television. Chuck Berry telling our parents’ world that Mr. Beethoven and his crowd, Frank’s too, all had to move over because there was a new sheriff in town. Bo Diddley asking a very candid question about who put the rock in rock and roll and offering himself up as a candidate. Buddy Holly crooning against all hope for his Peggy Sue (or was it Betty Lou), Jerry Lee inflaming all with his raucous High School Confidential from the back of a flatbed truck, etc. again.
The blues though, the rarified country and electric urban blues of the likes of Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Howlin’ Wolf was an acquired taste. Acquired by Sam through listening to folk music programs on that very same transistor radio in the early 1960s after flipping the dial one Sunday night once he got tired of what they claimed was rock music on WJDA and caught a Boston station, WBZ and later WCAS. The main focus was on other types of roots music but when the show would take a break from down home mountain music, western swing ballads, and urban protest music the DJ would play some cuts of country or electric blues. See all the big folkies, Dylan, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, people like that were wild to cover the blues in the search for serious roots music from the American songbook. So somebody, Sam didn’t know who, figured if everybody who was anybody was covering the blues in that folk minute then it made sense to play the real stuff. (Sam later carried Ralph along on the genre after they had met down in Washington, D.C. in 1971, had been arrested and held in detention at RFK Stadium for trying to shut down the government if it did not shut the Vietnam War, had become life-long friends and Ralph began to dig the blues when he came to Cambridge to visit Sam although he would shutter his ears if Sam played some folk stuff).
The real stuff having been around for a while, having been produced by the likes of Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf going back to the 1940s big time black migration to the industrial plants of the Midwest during World War II when there were plenty of jobs just waiting (and plenty taken away when the soldiers and sailors, white soldiers and sailors came home on the overcrowded troop transports looking to start life over again and raise those families they dreamed about in the muds of Europe and the salty brine of the atoll Pacific). But also having been pushed to the background, way to the background with the rise of rock and roll (although parts of rock make no sense, don’t work at all without kudos to blues chords, think about Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 and Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll, check it out). So it took that combination of folk minute and that well-hidden from view electric blues some time to filter through Sam’s brain.
What did not take a long time to do once Sam got “religion” was going crazy over Howlin’ Wolf when he saw him perform down in Newport when everybody who was anybody that high school and college kids wanted to hear in that folk minute showed up there. Once Sam had seen him practically eat that harmonica when he was playing that instrument on How Many More Years. There the Wolf was all sweating, running to high form and serious professionalism (just ask the Stones about that polished professionalism when he showed them how to really play Little Red Rooster which they had covered early on in their career as they had covered many other Chess Records blues numbers, as had in an ironic twist a whole generation English rockers in the 1960s while American rockers were basically clueless until the Brits told them about their own roots music) and moving that big body to and fro to beat the band. Playing like god’s own avenging angel, if those angels played the harmonica, and if they could play as well as he did.They both hoped that greying James Montgomery, master harmonica player in his own right, blew the roof off of the house as they spied the wait person coming their way and James moving onto the stage getting ready to burn up the microphone. And he and his band did just that. Yes, that blues calling from somewhere deep in the muds is an acquired taste and a lasting one.