Abstract

In June 1960, after nine years of recording and over two decades of touring and performing, Howlin’ Wolf and some trusty sidemen entered Chess Studios in Chicago to cut three sides: “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Spoonful,” and “Back Door Man.” There was nothing especially historic about the session. In June of 1960, Howlin’ Wolf was fifty years old and an established act. Yet everything about the session’s results, and particularly the song “Back Door Man,” strikes me as elusive, interstitial. Jim Crow racial segregation—at least one of the many meanings of the song’s title—was now both legally discredited and locally practiced, North as well as South. The music produced out of this context was at once urgently urban and country plain, for the most part southern rural in instrumentation and howlingly electric in form—an unstable sonic resolution of the migration of deep South laboring come north. And in retrospect, urban blues at this moment was poised historically between different political, urban, and culture-industry orders. I explore this hesitation between tenses, as Raymond Williams might put it, for which “Back Door Man” provides a site. Minimal, sinister, and edgy, fueled by images of violence, betrayal, and polymorphous sexual bravado, structured throughout by riddles and dialectical reversals, the song is a sort of historical puzzle, fusing Jim Crow sound, Jim Crow sex, and Jim Crow space; it implies as well a theory of how sound and subject formation, and subject formation through sound, arise out of Jim Crow violence.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 697-710
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-15
Open Access
No
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