Ready to howl: Howlin' Wolf Blues Festival honors West Point's most famous native son

August 10, 2013 6:35:25 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Chester Arthur Burnett was born without fanfare in the rural reaches of West Point, Mississippi, one sultry June day in 1910. There was nothing to indicate the baby boy would someday earn induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, much less have a U.S. postage stamp issued in his honor. But the youth who grew up watching smokestack sparks fly into the night sky when trains rumbled through Clay County's countryside grew up to be Howlin' Wolf. Looming, gruff and powerful, he carved a titan's legacy into the world of blues, and rock and roll, that lives on long after his 1976 death. His hometown takes pride in honoring this native son every Labor Day weekend with the Howlin' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival.  


West Point is readying the welcome mat -- and a brand new mural -- for its double-barrel weekend, which encompasses the 18th annual blues festival Friday, Aug. 30, at Mary Holmes College Auditorium, and the Saturday, Aug. 31 Prairie Arts Festival, featuring fine arts, crafts, mouth-watering food, live music and much more.  


It might be said that blues fest director Richard Ramsey, of the Howlin' Wolf Blues Society, is on pins and needles in these final weeks leading up to the big night. He's spent all year booking performers and attending to details.  


This year's lineup boasts 2010 Grammy nominee and 2011 Blues Music Award recipient Bryan Lee and his Blues Power Band, Mark "Muleman" Massey with his band (featuring Grammy winner Billy Earheart on piano and organ and Garry and Dexter Burnside -- sons of R.L. Burnside), Homemade Jamz and Ben Prestage. 


"We're poised and ready for the influx of attendees," pledged Ramsey. "We've received, on average, festival-goers from 25 states and five countries per year. Many stay for the Prairie Arts Festival the next day. It fills our hotels and restaurants, and they buy gas and shop in our great city businesses." 




Soak up the legend 


While some of the best in blues entertainment is on tap for the festival, true aficionados will also make a stop Aug. 30 at the Howlin' Wolf Museum at 307 Westbrook St., near downtown. This little gem may be small in size, but it's big in history, in large part a testament to Ramsey's consistent pursuit of meaningful memorabilia related to the blues legend. 


Among the collection are Wolf's 1952 guitar and blues harp, and a rare album of The London Sessions, autographed by Eric Clapton and Wolf's longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin (named to Rolling Stone magazine's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists). Sumlin's guitars, awards and stage costumes join donated guitars from musicians who praise Wolf's influence, like The Who's Pete Townshend and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.  


Plans are in development for a larger museum, but in the meantime, the current displays will add depth to the festival experience. The museum, which has ample parking in the rear, will be open Friday, Aug. 30 from 1 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. No admission is charged, but any donation is appreciated. 




Big picture 


Howlin' Wolf has been larger than life for many years now, but that is taking on new meaning on West Point's Main Street. There, a century-old brick wall is being transformed into a homage to the Wolf.  


"This is a huge project, and we're really proud of the fact that it's not just one group doing this. People have joined hands," said Kathy Dyess of the city's Main Street Design Committee. The group is collaborating with the City of West Point and other entities to bring the public artwork to fruition in time for festival weekend. Deborah Mansfield of West Point, also a Design Committee member, is the lead artist. 


"The mural is filled with iconic images to represent Howlin' Wolf and his music -- his profile, his guitar and Marine Band harmonica he used, the Chess Record Label, the 'Little Red Rooster,' which was one of his very famous songs that was re-recorded by lots of groups, including the Rolling Stones, and the train, representing another famous song, 'Smokestack Lightnin'," explained Dyess.  


The "canvas" is finished. Workers and volunteers are now in the process of adding a 40-foot-by-15-foot tubular steel trellis-like structure that will frame the mural. Plant material, signage and lighting will be installed, too. 


"We think it's going to be stunning," declared Dyess. 


West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson added, "I think the mural looks great, and it will be finished for the festivals. It's going to be an exciting weekend for West Point and the entire area. The door is open, and we welcome all." With a smile, he continued, "The only downside to the entire weekend is that you may be so exhausted on Sunday, you'll want to nap all afternoon." 




How to go 


Doors at the Howlin' Wolf Festival at Mary Holmes College, which is owned by Community Counseling Services, will open at 6 p.m. Music begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance at Culin Arts in West Point, the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus and at Jack Forbus Insurance in Starkville. Or purchase tickets online at Tickets are $20 at the door.  


Community Counseling Services will be on site selling barbecue, burgers, smoked sausage, desserts and drinks. 


"We'd like to thank Community Counseling Services for stepping up and welcoming this great event to their facility," said Ramsey, "They went all out to accommodate us. ... Howlin' Wolf is a huge figure in music history, and we're proud to honor his legacy. Be there and howl with the Wolf!" 


For more information, contact Ramsey at 662-605-0770 or [email protected]

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.