Smokestack Lightning

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"Smoke Stack Lightning"
Smoke Stack Lightning single cover.jpg
Single by Howlin' Wolf
B-side"You Can't Be Beat"
ReleasedMarch 1956 (1956-03)
RecordedChicago, January 1956
LabelChess (no. 1618)
Songwriter(s)Chester Burnett a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf
Producer(s)Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
Howlin' Wolf singles chronology
"Come to Me, Baby"
"Smoke Stack Lightning"
"I Asked for Water"

"Smokestack Lightning" (also "Smoke Stack Lightning" or "Smokestack Lightnin'") is a blues song recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1956. It became one of his most popular and influential songs. It is based on earlier blues songs, and numerous artists later interpreted it.


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, he recorded the song as "Crying at Daybreak". It contains the line "O-oh smokestack lightnin', shinin', just like gold, oh don't you hear me cryin'", similar to the Mississippi Sheiks' lyric "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 is credited with the distinctive guitar line.[5] Howlin' Wolf sang and played harmonica, backed by pianist Hosea Lee Kennard, guitarists Willie Johnson[6] and Hubert Sumlin, bassist Willie Dixon, and drummer Earl Phillips.[5]

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


"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 various 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, Kaleidoscope and the Wailers. The song has also been performed or recorded by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Fenton Robinson, Lucky Peterson, John Lee Hooker, John Mayer, Bob Dylan, Gillan, Mike Harrison, Soundgarden, Widespread Panic, moe., Gov't Mule, Lester Butler, George Thorogood, Aerosmith, Bintangs, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Gun Club, Blues Creation and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.


  1. ^ a b c Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark (2004). Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf. New York City: Pantheon Books. pp. 20, 126. ISBN 0-375-42246-3.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  2. ^ Palmer, Robert (1982). Deep Blues. New York City: Penguin Books. p. 231. ISBN 0-14006-223-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  3. ^ Evans, David (1987). Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Boston, Massachesetts: Da Capo Press. p. 274. ISBN 978-0-306-80300-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  4. ^ a b Rolling Stone (December 9, 2004). "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone (963). Retrieved September 3, 2013.
  5. ^ a b Janovitz, Bill. "Howlin' Wolf: Smokestack Lightning – Song Review". AllMusic. 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. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press. p. 198. ISBN 1-55728-252-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  8. ^ "Howlin' Wolf – Singles". Official Charts. Retrieved September 3, 2013.
  9. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards – Past Recipients". 1999. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  10. ^ Blues Foundation (November 10, 2016). "1985 Hall of Fame Inductees: Smoke Stack Lightning (Smokestack Lightnin') – Howlin' Wolf (Chess, 1956)". The Blues Foundation. Retrieved February 9, 2017.
  11. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on 2007-05-02. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  12. ^ "Complete National Recording Registry Listing". U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved August 3, 2014.
  13. ^ "Smokestack Lightning – Song Search Results". AllMusic. Retrieved August 3, 2014.