Smokestack Lightning

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"Smoke Stack Lightning"
Single by Howlin' Wolf
B-side "You Can't Be Beat"
Released March 1956 (1956-03)
Format 7" 45 rpm & 10" 78 rpm records
Recorded Chicago, January 1956
Genre Blues
Length 2:32
Label Chess (Cat. no. 1618)
Writer(s) Chester Burnett aka Howlin' Wolf
Producer(s) Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
Howlin' Wolf singles chronology
"Come to Me, Baby"
(1955)
"Smoke Stack Lightning"
(1956)
"I Asked for Water"
(1956)

"Smokestack Lightning" (or "Smoke Stack Lightning" as listed on the original single, but "Smokestack Lightnin'" on re-releases) is a classic of the blues. In 1956, Howlin' Wolf recorded the song and it became one of his most popular and influential songs. It is based on earlier blues songs and numerous artists later interpreted it.

Background[edit]

Wolf had performed "Smokestack Lightning" in one form or another at least by the early 1930s,[1] when he was performing with Charley Patton in small Delta communities.[1] The song, called "a hypnotic one-chord drone piece"[2] 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).[3] 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."[4] 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'" similar to the Mississippi Sheiks "A-ah, smokestack lightnin', that bell shine just like gold, now don't you hear me talkin'".

Original song[edit]

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".[1] Longtime Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin takes credit for the distinctive guitar line.[5] Backing Howlin' Wolf on vocals and harmonica were pianist Hosea Lee Kennard, guitarists Willie Johnson[6] and Hubert Sumlin, bassist Willie Dixon, and drummer Earl Phillips.[5]

In 1956, "Smokestack Lightning" reached #11 in the Billboard R&B chart.[7] When it was released by Pye International Records in the UK in 1964, it peaked at #42 in the singles chart.[8] Later, the song was included on the albums Moanin' in the Moonlight and The Howlin' Wolf Album.

Accolades[edit]

"Smokestack Lightning" received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 honoring its lasting historical significance.[9] It is ranked number 291 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time".[4] In 1985, the song was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the "Classics of Blues Recordings" category.[10] It is also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll".[11] In 2009, "Smokestack Lightning" was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress.[12]

Recordings by other artists[edit]

"Smokestack Lightning" has been interpreted numerous times by a variety of artists.[13] In the early to mid-1960s, it became a live staple of British beat groups, including the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, the Animals, the Groundhogs and the Who as well as American groups, such as Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Electric Prunes, and the Wailers. The song has also been performed and/or recorded by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Fenton Robinson, Lucky Peterson, John Lee Hooker, John Mayer, Bob Dylan, Mike Harrison, Soundgarden, Widespread Panic, moe., Gov't Mule, Lester Butler, George Thorogood, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark (2004). Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf. Pantheon Books. pp. 20, 126. ISBN 0-375-42246-3. 
  2. ^ Palmer, Robert (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 231. ISBN 0-14-006223-8. 
  3. ^ Evans, David (1987). Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Da Capo Press. p. 274. ISBN 978-0-306-80300-0. 
  4. ^ a b "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone (963). December 9, 2004. Retrieved September 3, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Janovitz, Bill. "Howlin' Wolf: Smokestack Lightning – Song Review". Allmusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  6. ^ Willie Johnson or Pat Hare played on the earlier "Crying at Daybreak".
  7. ^ Herzhaft, Gerard (1992). "Smokestack Lightning". Encyclopedia of the Blues. University of Arkansas Press. p. 198. ISBN 1-55728-252-8. 
  8. ^ "Howlin' Wolf – Singles". Official Charts. The Official Charts Company. Retrieved September 3, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards – Past Recipients". The Recording Academy. 1999. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  10. ^ "Classics of Blues Recordings – Singles or Album Tracks". Blues Hall of Fame Inductees Winners. The Blues Foundation. 1985. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  11. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on 2007. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  12. ^ "The Full National Recording Registry". National Recording Preservation Board. U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved August 3, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Smokestack Lightning – Song Search Results". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved August 3, 2014.