Smokestack Lightning

Howlin’ Wolf

Patton’s Influence

Howlin’ Wolf performs “Smokestack Lightning” while on tour in England in 1964 with a band including Willie Dixon (string bass), and Hubert Sumlin (guitar).

“Smokestack Lightning”, in one form or another, “had been part of Wolf’s repertoire as far back as the early 1930s” when he was performing in small Delta communities with, revered blues legend Charley Patton. The song, called “a hypnotic one-chord drone piece” draws on earlier blues, such as Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues” (1928 Victor 21279), the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Stop and Listen Blues” (1930 OKeh 8807), and Charley Patton’s “Moon Going Down” (1930 Paramount 13014). Wolf said the song was inspired by watching trains in the night: “We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” In 1951, Howlin’ Wolf recorded the song as “Crying at Daybreak” (RPM 340). It contains the line “O-oh smokestack lightnin’, shinin’, just like gold, oh don’t you hear me cryin’ …”

In Chicago in January 1956, Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Smokestack Lightning”. The song takes the form of “a propulsive, one-chord vamp, nominally in E major but with the flatted blue notes that make it sound like E minor” and lyrically, it is “a pastiche of ancient blues lines and train references, timeless and evocative”. Longtime Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin takes credit for the distinctive guitar line. It reached reached #11 that year on the Billboard R&B chart.

“Smokestack Lightning” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 honoring its lasting historical significance. In 2009 the song was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the United States Library of Congress.

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