#154: Howlin' Wolf, "Moanin' in the Moonlight" (1959)

154 Moanin in the Moonlight.jpg


They say "Wolfman" Willie Stevens went down to the crossroads just like Robert Johnson had done so he could make a deal with the devil, and that the devil put a touch of the wolf in him. They say that's where that famous howl of his come from.

See, at the start of every Wolfman show, they would turn down all the lights and you could hear these voices whispering—like somebody talking in tongues—then there'd be this deep, gutbucket moan that musta come from somewhere dark, wet, and way low down. The moan would get louder and louder until it turned into this kinda wail that you could only understand if you'd picked cotton in the Mississippi sun all day for short pay, or if your people had. That same wail would keep right on stirring longer than seemed possible for any human voice. It would build up until the room would start to shake and then, just when it felt like the whole raw earth might open up and swallow everybody, Wolfman would let loose this howl so loud and so full that if you didn't before, you suddenly knew how it felt to be hunted. Then a single spotlight would shine and there'd be Wolfman, standing tall and just off center stage.

His suit always hung loose on him but it couldn't hide the thick muscles of his back, arms, and shoulders, or his massive hands that felt like putting yours inside of a baseball mitt when he greeted you. He'd start tapping his hand against the beefy meat of his thigh until Brother Benny picked up the rhythm and then the beat would kick in. And I'm not talmbout just any ole tip tap now, but that real blue, real true groove, that lean, smokestack-steaming-mean thump. The bass, guitar, and keys would start chugging along just behind it and Wolfman would just let the rhythm cook until the music got down into your hips and hind parts. Once he knew it was really getting good to you, he'd pull his harp from the left pocket of his waistcoat and commence to blowing. Nobody really knew where the harp came from originally, but they say it was a gift from Charley Patton, who got it from somebody else who got it from somebody else going all the way back down the line to since before we come over the water.

Wolfman could make the harp howl too and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between that and his own voice, though every now and then, you could hear something else behind his howl, almost like a growllike he was singing to keep something away. It ain't really matter whether he was howlin' or growlin' though: folks knew when they came to see Wolfman play, he was finna show out. Him and the boys could keep us boogiein' all night long, and when he really got into it, them blues he put down could fill up all the empty spaces, make folk forget or maybe remember too damn good everything holding them under and maybe, give 'em just enough to get they head above it for a little while longer. Wolf and his pack—that's what folk called the band—would play deep into the night unless somebody got to cussin' too loud, drinkin' too much, or the sharp razors came out. Somebody once asked Wolfman how come folk get to cuttin' and shootin' each other sometimes when they hear the blues? He said he couldn't do nothing but play what was inside him. Anything after that, he ain't had no right getting in the middle of.


Word was if you wanted to find the old gypsy woman who knew something about curses, you had to go deep into the swamp right around twilight and look for the trees with moss growing on the wrong side. Then, if she wanted you to find her and was feeling charitable, you'd see her wagon slung with purple drapes and gold trim, a low burning fire beside it.

Wolfman hated being in the woods because it reminded him of the farm his mama sent him away from after he refused to pick not one more bale of cotton; he couldn't square being bent over in a field all day just so Mr. Talbot's lazy ass children could eat the white meat while all him and mama got was the gizzards. But after he'd heard what sounded like hellhounds barking outside his door the night before and then saw the deep claw marks in the dirt come morning, he knew he'd have to put pride aside and go see the woman they say could get you out of a devil's bargain.

The old gypsy woman already knew why he came as he tucked his head and crouched his way through the small door to the wagon. She said he wasn't the first bluesman or blues woman who thought they could borrow from Ol' Scratch and not have to pay him his due when them dogs came calling. But when she looked him over a little closer, the slender woman—who he couldn't describe because the contours of her face seemed to shift every few minutes—asked for his hands. Said his hands was so big she really only need to see one of them. So she cupped his right hand into both of hers, leaned in, and took a big whiff. Said it didn't even take so much second sight as she had for somebody to tell that he had a touch of the wolf in him. Then told him if he really wanted to keep from out between the hounds' teeth, he needed to go see her half-sister in New Orleans who knew the right hoodoo, but that he probably wouldn't get that far with the hounds already on his trail.

He sat quiet and she could tell that wasn't going to be the end of it. Said that while she didn't have anything that could take the wolf out of him, she could try putting the rest of the wolf in and that might could be enough for him to fight off the hounds when they came. Said it would cost him all the money he had with him, which was all he had anywhere, and still she couldn't make no guarantees. But if it worked, he'd be able to change himself into a wolf whenever he wanted and that he'd be strongest under the full moonlight. Willie Stevens felt uneasy about the prospect of becoming a real life Lon Chaney, Jr., but felt even more uneasy about being some hellhound's dinner. He still had a whole lot more blues he needed to get out and knew too many folks who still needed to hear it. So he set in his mind that if becoming the wolf—and putting some truth behind his nickname—was the only way to sort it out, that'd be his burden to carry. And so when the gypsy woman asked if he was sure and told him that there wasn't no going back after this, he just nodded.

He didn't remember much about what happened next: some flashes of what looked like a severed wolf's paw, the gypsy woman chanting something he couldn't quite make out, a bright flash of purple and red light, and the smell of ash. He woke up the next morning in the woods not far from home, naked, cold, and with the taste of blood still fresh in his mouth. A little doe, her flesh torn from overeager teeth and claws, and her dull, black eyes staring up at him, lay just a few feet away.

He managed to get to the house without anybody seeing him and cleaned himself up. He noticed his heartbeat had slowed way down from normal and the shooting pains he'd been fighting in his kidneys were gone. After he cleared the steam from the bathroom mirror and saw his reflection, he remembered something else the old gypsy woman said: sometimes the only thing for a curse is another curse.


His newfound status as a mythical beast notwithstanding, Wolfman got ready for the show like he did any other night, though he phoned ahead and told the boys he wasn't going to make it to Patsy's for dinner before because he wasn't hungry. Still, he pressed his shirt, shined his shoes, and laid his suit out on the bed. Then he lit some incense, poured a glass of bourbon with lemon and ginger to get his voice right, and sat down to write the set list. He and the boys rehearsed almost daily, but he never told them just what they was going to play or in what order. Said that made it so they had room to conjure up something new if he felt it coming on—and he knew he might need all the room he could get.

He was the last one to get to the jook that night and found the boys backstage talking shit as usual. They could tell something was off just from looking. "I need y'all to trust me. Whatever happens, just follow my lead. Can y'all trust me?" He wouldn't say no more than that, only that tonight, they'd be playing for his life. Hubert, the guitar man who'd been with him since the beginning, stood up, "Whatever, whenever, or whoever it be, you ain't never even had to ask if we would be standing right there beside you." They all nodded. And so the boys made ready for a fight while Wolf just stood quiet at the window watching the moonrise.

Time came for the show to start. The lights came down, it got pin-drop quiet, and Wolfman started to moan. But it sounded different from how it normally did; it was more desperate and more guttural, but also more alive. And while there was always some pain in the wail that followed, now it had a bite to it that felt both terrifying and welcome. The room shook the same as before and it still felt like the whole raw earth might open up and swallow us all until Wolfman let loose a truly monstrous howl, which sounded more like a real wolf than it ever had. Before he could count off the tune though, we heard a clamor of fearsome barks and snarls coming from outside in every direction.

Everyone from around these parts knew the sound of a hellhound when they heard it, and we also knew there wasn't much could be done to keep one out that wanted inside. For a brief moment, the sounds died away and we hoped that somehow, maybe we'd been given a reprieve, but then came a violent crash at the door and our silence gave way to whimpers and muffled screams. You know it's funny to see the same folks who'd just as soon cut you for stepping on their brand new gators or for getting too familiar with their woman (or their man) suddenly cowering down beneath a table once they’d heard a hellhound at the door. Suppose it's a lot easier to summon up the gumption to fight somebody when you feel like you can make them hurt the same way you do.

The hounds kept charging at the door, harder and harder each time, and we stayed huddled in darkness, knowing that the door wouldn't hold for much longer. Just when we thought it was about to give way, we heard Wolfman howl again, even deeper and richer this time. Then he stomped a beat with his foot like a series of shotgun blasts and Brother Benny, with ritual precision, picked it up and started to groovin' even as the hounds kept raging outside. The rest of the pack joined in but they played the way you do when a song is the difference between you and oblivion. Wolf took out his harp and blew a note so mean that somebody broke our petrified silence and shouted, "I know that's right!" Somebody else pleaded, "You betta go on!" Pretty soon, we was all clappin' and hootin' and hollerin' until all of it—Wolfman wailing on his harp, the band quaking behind him, the hounds roaring outside, and us, trying to shout, shimmy, and shake away our pain—became an ugly, terrible, undeniable, beautiful mess of noise. And we kept at it all night long until the barking from outside stopped or we'd just stopped hearing it.

Wasn't no sign of the hounds when folks finally made their way outside into the morning light. Wolfman and the boys sat on the porch pulling the last swallows of shine from their glasses and then got ready to head on over to Patsy's for breakfast same as they always did after a show.

The way folks tell what happened that night depends on who you ask. Some say they saw Willie Stevens turn into a full-blooded werewolf right there on stage. Some say they saw him fight off a hellhound with nothing but the howl of his harp. Others claim that he'd paid a bunch of folks to stand outside and make a ruckus just so as to liven up the show. Only thing anybody really knew for sure is that Wolfman and his pack played some of the best damn blues folks had ever heard that night and that he kept on putting them same blues down to fill up the empty spaces all the way from here to Memphis, up in Chicago, and even over there in Europe somewhere. That's where the white boys picked it up and then made themselves a whole lot of money. But they ain't never sounded like Wolf, maybe because they ain't never been down to the crossroads, or because they ain't never known nothing about no gypsy woman's curses, or maybe they just ain't never picked no cotton in the Mississippi sun—or their people never did.

—Mikal Gaines