At the Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum in West Point, Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society Program Director Richard Ramsey holds a 1952 Kay Thin Twin electric guitar bought by West Point native Howlin’ Wolf for his longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin. The Society’s annual blues festival named in Wolf’s honor will be Friday, Sept. 4. A large photo of Wolf dominates the right wall. Photo by: Kelly Tippett/Dispatch Staff
August 29, 2009 8:07:00 PM
"I was just this fat, little kid who loved him," Colin Linden chuckles, reliving his first encounter at age 11 with the inimitable bluesman Howlin'' Wolf in Toronto, Ontario. The seven-time Juno Award winner''s voice travels, accessible and warm, via phone from Nashville.
"I didn''t try to get him to do anything; I had no motivation besides just wanting to be around him," the Canadian-born musician, songwriter and producer continues. "I was probably like a little dog yapping around his feet. But there was a graciousness and a kindness about him. He was just an open-hearted person, so patient."
On Sept. 4 in West Point, Linden joins the Eric Hughes Band, Blind Mississippi Morris, the Black Prairie Blues Kings, Big Joe Shelton, the Bill Abel Band, Caleb Childs and more in honoring Burnett -- as well as the late Willie King -- at the 14th annual Howlin'' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival at The Civic Center.
Wolf, a rough-hewn giant of a man who left an indelible mark in music, grew up in the White Station railroad community just outside West Point. There in the country, he''d watch the trains go by, their heavy engines belching shooting sparks into the night sky. That melancholy fire would later find its way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer''s seminal "Smokestack Lightning"
Training them up
"One of the things that was so incredible when I first met Wolf was that even as an 11-year-old, I could really tell that there was such a connection between who he was as an individual and who he was as an artist," shares Linden, conveying the intensity he sensed in the gruff, electrifying singer.
"Wolf had this persona on stage that was so powerful and ferocious in a way, but in his integrity and commitment, he was also ferocious. Yes, he put on a show, but he had that kind of commitment as an individual. Even as a little kid, I could tell that. I knew that he was serious."
The chance but prophetic meeting came after Linden convinced his mother to take him to one of Wolf''s matinee shows. They went hours early to get good balcony seats. When Linden, already a fan, spotted Wolf having a bite at the side of the stage, he introduced himself.
The pair spent part of the afternoon together, forging a connection that would heavily influence the young boy who grew up to work with artists like T-Bone Burnett, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, The Band and The Rolling Stones -- as well as Nashville drummer Bryan Owings, formerly of Columbus.
It was Wolf who honed Linden''s appreciation of pioneers like Charley Patton.
"If you want to learn something about this music, you need to listen to the people I learned from," the elder artist tutored.
"He told me about Charley Patton, and the next time he came to Toronto, I''d tell him I bought the Charley Patton record and had been trying to learn it," Linden recalls with smile in his voice.
The lessons took
Linden, a solo artist and a member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, has played on hundreds of recordings and produced dozens of albums. His own records, including the acclaimed May release, "From the Water" on Canada''s True North Records, have cemented his credibility. You''ve heard his music in films, including his rendition of Wolf''s "Killing Floor" in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"
The man known primarily as an artist throughout Canada and probably more often as a producer in the lower 48 has been dubbed "an insider''s insider; a musician''s musician." He''s quick to tell you the music Wolf opened the door to only years before his 1976 death remain at the core of everything he does.
At The Civic
Howlin'' Wolf Blues Society Program Director Richard Ramsey and board members are busy preparing for visitors from around the country to converge in West Point Sept. 4 for the blues bonanza, which dovetails with the Prairie Arts Festival the following day.
"We''ve already sold tickets to people in Texas, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, New York City, Chicago, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee," Ramsey stated.
Two of Wolf''s daughters, Barbra Marks and Bettye Kelly, of Chicago, will make a return visit to Clay County for the festival.
"Times are approximate, but we''ll have Caleb Childs playing outdoors from 5-6:30 p.m., Big Joe Shelton inside at 6:30 p.m., the Bill Abel Band at 7:30 p.m., Colin and Blind Mississippi Morris will do something together about 8:30 or 9 p.m.
"We''ll have a tribute to Willie King, and then Morris and the Black Prairie Blues Kings, with special guest Colin Linden, will go on, followed by the Eric Hughes Band about 11 p.m."
Willie King tribute
It would be impossible to hold a Howlin'' Wolf Festival without paying homage to bluesman Willie King, of Prairie Point, who passed away in March.
"I never had to call Willie to ask, ''Can I book you this year?'' It was a given," Ramsey said. "Willie was a true humanitarian: He did more for other people than he did for himself. To lose somebody of this caliber is really, really hard to take. It''s hard to think about putting on a festival without that man gracing the stage."
The Howlin'' Wolf Museum, located behind the Bryan Reading Park in West Point, will be open on festival weekend from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Sept. 4 and all day Sept. 5 during the Prairie Arts Festival. In addition to rare photographs and memorabilia of Wolf''s, it holds donated items such as guitars of Pete Townshend and Eddie Van Halen, Hubert Sumlin''s Grammy nomination medal and Blues Music Awards.
Like the museum, Linden does his part in helping keep the legacy and lessons from being lost.
"Wolf always said that, no matter who you''re playing to, whether they''re white, or black, or even if there''s only three people there, you''ve got to be playing like there''s 3,000. You''ve got to give it the same passion.
"Something else he once told me was, ''I''m not gonna be around for very long, and when I''m gone, I want you to help carry on. ... It was incredibly powerful."
It''s a charge Linden gladly and humbly pays forward, every day of his career.
Editor''s Note: Blues Festival tickets are $15 in advance at www.wpnet.org/Howlin_Festival.htm, at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus, The Growth Alliance and Bits N Pieces in West Point and Jack Forbus Insurance in Starkville. Project Homestead will cook and sell food outdoors; small coolers are allowed. The exclusive festival T-shirt outlet prior to Sept. 4 is Bits N Pieces in West Point.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.