Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Oliver: Howlin' Wolf - Down in the Bottom (2 November 1991)

It's no surprise that the first selection for a mixtape from those Peel shows should be something like this.  Maybe you were expecting The Fall.  

Peel clung passionately to roots music and the likes of Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf were staples of his playlists from his first days on radio to his last.  Perhaps it's because the blues can never truly disappoint and it sounds credible no matter where it's played or when it's played.  Oh, it can be parodied and sent up, but for those fortunate enough to be able to sing and play it to any kind of standard, there will always be people who want their misery and pain processed through a stew of bourboun, cigarettes and hard fought experience.  The experience that men such as Howlin' Wolf (or Mr. Wolf as Tony Hawks calls him) seem to possess when they open their mouths to sing.

Down in the Bottom is not a miserable song at all.  Quite the contrary in fact.  This tale of trying to escape from the irate husbands/fathers etc of women that he's been making love to dates back to 1934 when it was recorded as Hey Lawdy Mama by Buddy Moss.  Two years later, Bumble Bee Slim reworked the lyrics and recorded them as Meet Me in the Bottom.  He seems to have introduced the element of trying to get away from someone.  Both songs featured the singer requesting that they be brought shoes and clothes, but it wasn't until 1961 when Willie Dixon rewrote the lyrics again that the shoes became running ones.
Wolf recorded the song as a single for Chess Records in 1961 and it was included in the compilation album of Wolf's early singles for Chess, released the following year and which will be reviewed on this blog soon.

When he played the song, Peel remarked on how oddly recorded the vocals sounded, "As though Howlin' Wolf had phoned the vocals in in some way".  For me what stands out are the guitars which have been recorded in such a way that they sound like a brass section.  And all this six years or so before the Beatles went around telling engineers to make pianos sound like guitars and guitars sound like pianos.  Unless, it was a brass section tucked away there all along...

I recommend this song to anyone with a new baby or infant child as it has a perfect dandling refrain running through it.  Puppeteers and marionette artists could devise routines around that refrain.  And if you can get through the recording without imagining Warwick Davis dancing around in oversized
clothes to it, you're a better person than I am.

Video courtesy of SlowSyrup.

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