There is an aura of mystery which surrounds the Mississippi Delta Blues.
The music itself is still mysterious to the ear, even decades after its inception and subsequent years of exploration and yet to be achieved perfection.
Legends tell of spirits, demons and contractual agreements at haunted “crossroads” where a musical wannabe could turn himself into a musical virtuoso by giving his soul as a ransom for talent.
Even though Chester Arthur Burnett was born at White Station in Clay County, a couple of hours removed from that Delta, his career was still one of mystery and one that of legend.
He’s known as Holwin’ Wolf, a stage name and an alter ego that stemmed from an abusive childhood.
“Chester was abused, worked like a mule and fed like a dog,” said Richard Ramsey, Director of West Point’s Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum. “His grandfather told him the story of the Big Bad Wolf to scare him as he was a mischievous child. He would later take the name “Howlin’ Wolf” as his alter ego.”
Wolf ran away from West Point when he turned 13 to look for his father.
His journey took him deep into the Delta, a place called Ruleville which sits near the Bolivar and Sunflower County lines. It was at the Young and Morrow Plantation where his father worked, and it was in this area where he would meet up with Blues legend Charlie Patton.
“His father, Doc Burnett bought him his first guitar at age 17,” Ramsey said. “Wolf would learn from the masters, Charlie Patton on guitar and Sonny Boy Williamson II on harmonica.”
Perhaps it was fitting that this alter ego “Wolf” would eventually play with Robert Johnson, the man most responsible for the dark spiritual stories of the Delta Blues.
At the age of 41, Wolf met a talent scout named Ike Turner who introduced his voice to producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records.
Phillips would later produce Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
“Sam Phillips would say of Wolf, ‘Howlin’ Wolf was the most powerful performer I have ever recorded!’” Ramsey said of Phillips’ sessions with Wolf. “Sam would then sell Wolf’s contract to the Chess Brothers in Chicago, stating that, ‘I will take it to my grave the day I sold Wolf’s contract to the Chess Brothers.’”
Wolf’s powerful voice was then introduced to the world, and he would influence the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa and countless others.
“His musical legacy is unsurpassed in music history,” Ramsey said. “He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Blues Hall of Fame, is in the Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 Artists of All Time, and he has five songs in the Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 Songs of All Time.
Wolf also has a U.S. Postage Stamp in his honor.
Even though he was buried in Hines, Illinois when he died in 1976, Wolf’s journey to become one of the top performing artists of all time began in Clay County.
In honor of this hometown legend, the Howlin Wolf Blues Society holds an annual festival in his name. A black granite statue has also been erected in his honor, as well as the Howlin’ Wolf Blues Trail Marker.
The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum, which is undergoing an expansion into the McClure Building this year, receives visitors from all over the globe.