Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller, Howlin' Wolf and Sophie

Good Bye, Arthur Miller. Destined to rank among American’s leading dramatists, may your plays find audiences for decades to come.

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Book 13 of '05: Moanin’ at Midnight, The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf, James Segrest and Mark Hoffman.

I finished this book Tuesday while on a quick trip to Boston (more later). I found it to be a serviceable, but unexceptional biography of an American original. Wolf (born Chester Burnett) and his voice were a force of nature.

This biography, along with recent biographies of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, provide us with a proper appreciation of blues contribution to rock and roll—in America and in England—as well as furnishing us with a reason for Wolf’s preeminent status as a blue artist. This man belongs on Mount Bluesmore.

I take exception with two aspects of the book. The descriptions of key recording sessions are well-researched and largely resolve the identity of musicians in the studio when Wolf’s greatest recordings were made. But, these passages often smack of inside baseball. The authors clearly understand the intricacies of music, but what do descriptions of “belching saxophones, tom-tom drumming, and . . . brilliantly off-kilter guitar” or “a hypnotic one-chord romp” or “loping bass and sizzling drums, and Wolf’s throbbing harp” mean, except the authors have access to a thesaurus?

Segrest and Hoffman also rely heavily on interviews with an assortment of blues musicians and hangers on. The availability of primary source material is an asset for any biographer, but one that must be handled cautiously. Among those interviewed are certain to be musicians speaking from pique, jealously and dislike and who have one eye firmly on their place in the pantheon of blues artist. Which is to say that all interviews do not contribute to our understanding of Howlin’ Wolf.

My quibbles are minor. A biography of Wolf was long overdue and this book is most welcome. The discography provided by the authors is especially instructive and is certain to cost me considerable coin.

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I am currently reading Sophie’s Choice by William Styron as I continue to devote January and February to re-reading works of fiction. I distinctly remember the nub of Sophie’s Choice, but did not recall Styron’s style, which is dense as this passage amply demonstrates:

“Poland is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, soul-split country which in many ways (I came to see through Sophie’s eyes and memory that summer, and through my own eyes in later years) resembles or conjures up images of the American South—or at least the South of other, not-so-distant times. It is not alone that forlornly lovely, nostalgic landscape which creates the frequent likeness—the quagmiry but haunting monochrome of the Narew River swampland, for example, with its look and feel of a murky savanna on the Carolina coast, or the Sunday hush on a muddy back street in a village of Galicia, where by only the smallest eyewink of the imagination one might see whisked to a lonesome crossroads hamlet in Arkansas these ramshackle, weather-bleached little houses, crookedly carpentered, set upon shrubless plots of clay where scrawny chickens fuss and peck—but in the spirit of the nation, her indwellingly ravaged and melancholy heart, tormented into its shape like that of the Old South out of adversity, penury and defeat.”

Whew. I like fewer words, more periods and a more direct line to the story. More to come.

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