|Single by Roosevelt Sykes|
|B-side||"Boot That Thing"|
|Format||10-inch 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||June 14, 1929|
|Label||OKeh (no. 8702)|
"Forty-Four" or "44 Blues" is a blues standard whose origins have been traced back to early 1920s Louisiana. However, it was Roosevelt Sykes, who provided the lyrics and first recorded it in 1929, that helped popularize the song. "Forty-Four," through numerous adaptations and recordings, remains in the blues lexicon eighty years later.
"The Forty-Fours," as its earlier form was sometimes referred to, was a piano-driven "barrelhouse honky-tonk blues" that was performed as an instrumental. Little Brother Montgomery, who is usually credited with the development of the song, taught it to another blues pianist along the way by the name of Lee Green; Green, in turn, taught it to Roosevelt Sykes. As Sykes explained: "He [Lee Green] was the first guy I ever heard play the "44" Blues. Several people had been playing it through the country of course — Little Brother Montgomery and several others, but nobody had ever recorded it and there was no words to it, no words or lyrics at all. So Lee Green, he took a lot of time out to teach me how to play it." By the time he recorded it in 1929, Roosevelt Sykes supplied the lyrics and called the song "44 Blues":
Well I walked all night long, with my .44 in my hand (2×)
Now I was looking for my woman, found her with another man
Well I wore my .44 so long, Lord it made my shoulder sore (2×)
After I do what I want to, ain't gonna wear my .44 no more
Now I heard my baby say, she heard that 44 whistle blow (2×)
Lord it sounds like, ain't gonna blow that whistle no more
Now I got a little cabin, and it's number 44 (2×)
Lord I wake up every morning, the wolf be scratching on my door
It was not until after Sykes recorded "44 Blues" that Green and Montgomery recorded their versions of "The Forty-Fours." While instrumentally both were similar to Sykes' version, the subject matter and lyrics were different. Lee Green recorded his version, titled "Number 44 Blues," two months after Sykes (August 16, 1929, Vocalion 1401). About one year later, Little Brother Montgomery recorded his version titled "Vicksburg Blues" (September 1930, Paramount 13006-A). Of the three, Roosevelt Sykes' version was the most popular and "was to be far more influential than Green's version." "[Sykes' lyrics] played on the differing interpretations of the phrase 'forty-fours' — the train number 44, the .44 caliber revolver and the 'little cabin' on which was the number 44, presumably a prison cell." "Undoubtedly, these overlays of meaning generally appealed to other singers, accounting for the frequent use of Sykes' lyrics."
Howlin' Wolf version
|Single by Howlin' Wolf|
|B-side||"I'll Be Around"|
|Format||7-inch 45 rpm & 10-inch 78 rpm records|
|Recorded||Chicago, October 1954|
|Label||Chess (no. 1584)|
|Producer(s)||Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, Willie Dixon|
Due to the song's popularity, many versions of "Forty-Four" appeared over the following years, including some that bore little resemblance to the original except for the title. Sykes, Green, and Montgomery recorded it themselves ten times between 1929 and 1936. In 1954, when Howlin' Wolf recorded his version, "Forty Four" took on a new outlook. Backing Wolf, who sang and played hamonica, were Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams (electric guitars), Otis Spann (piano), Willie Dixon (bass), and Earl Phillips (drums). Together they transformed "Forty Four" into a Chicago blues, with prominent guitar lines and an insistent "martial shuffle on the snare drum plus a bass drum that slammed down like an industrial punch-press." Wolf retained Sykes' handgun reference and added "Well I'm so mad this morning, I don't know where in the world to go." With Howlin' Wolf's gruff and overpowering vocal style, the overall effect was menacing.
In keeping with the times, subsequent versions of "Forty-Four" would be more often in the Chicago blues style and bear Howlin' Wolf's influence. In 1968 "Forty-Four" was brought into the blues-rock age by Johnny Winter on his The Progressive Blues Experiment album. Winter's version was played at a faster tempo and had a more spare sound (trio of guitar, bass, and drums) dominated by Winter's guitar. Little Feat recorded "Forty-Four Blues" (coupled with another Howlin' Wolf song listed as "How Many More Years," but actually "No Place To Go") on their 1971 debut album Little Feat. Little Feat's version, with piano and harmonica, was closer to Howlin' Wolf's, but it also featured the addition of slide guitar by Ry Cooder.
American blues musician James Crutchfield recorded the song for his 1985 album Original Barrelhouse Blues half a century after Montgomery taught it to him in Louisiana. In 1998, the Derek Trucks Band recorded "Forty-Four" for the album Out of the Madness. Eric Burdon covered it for his album 2006 album Soul of a Man. During their 2008 tour, the Black Crowes included "Forty-Four Blues" in their set list. The garage rock duo the Kills included a cover version on their 2009 album Black Balloon EP, which incorporates more modern elements such as drum machines. During their 2012 tour, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters performed "44 Blues", which was "most inspired by the Howlin' Wolf version".
- Komara, Edward, ed. (2005). Encyclopedia of the Blues. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-92699-7.
- Oliver, Paul (1968). Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0306803444.
- Segret, James; Hoffman, Mark (2005). Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf. Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 978-1-56025-683-0.
- Bruin, Leo (1983). St. Louis Blues Piano (Media notes). James Crutchfield.
- "Robert Plant's New Band Makes U.S. Debut in Mississippi". Robert Plant.com. August 15, 2012. Retrieved April 29, 2013.