16th Century France by Way of Chicago: Howlin’ Wolf, the Blues, and Villanelles by JeFF Stumpo

howlin wolf

Villanelle shares a root with villain, and so I, with my love of puns, had a readymade theme for a chapbook project. I love projects even more than I love puns, the repetition and variation of using a theme, character, or form for an entire collection. This was to be Heroes & Villanelles, a series of looks at the darker sides of humanity – from chauvinism to genocide – through the form most people know best as an admonition to rage against the dying of the light. If you go back far enough, though, a villain isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just someone from a village, common folk. I got it in my head to draw on music to write my villanelles, commoners’ music: the Blues, Rock, Punk, Folk, Hip Hop. For two months, I sat down every night and put a song on repeat for 30-60 minutes. That was my allotted writing time. The first song was Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight,” and the Blues remains the cornerstone of the collection.

The Blues reminds me of my love for projects – repetition and variation. Give a man eight bars, twelve bars, put him in a smoky bar in Chicago, New York, N’awlins, let his woman leave him, let him be on the prowl, let the whiskey dry up or flow free, let the dice fail him yet again. Somewhere, there’s a Borgesian Blues-man who is Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk and Howlin’ Wolf and all the others rolled into one, meaning he’s the Every-Blues-man, meaning he’s nobody at all. That’s what you do in the Blues: lose yourself, find yourself.

There are a million versions of the same old story, and it’s about hitting your notes in the right order, giving your audience the same old lines a couple of times to get them comfortable, then switching it up with something to bring them back to life. A word they weren’t expecting. A note one note higher than last time. The same chorus reinvented by a new verse.

Most villanelles understand obsession. Dylan Thomas certainly did. But the best are like the Blues. They give you the same words each time, but they bend the notes. The first time Howlin’ Wolf proclaims “Somebody knockin’ on my door,” it’s setting a stage. The second time, we realize it’s been going on forever. The knocking hangs there, metamorphoses into a telephone call that similarly won’t cease, a desire to escape, and finally, from worry, release. As Thomas exhorts his father, we feel the grip on the old man’s shoulder tighten. The first “Do not go gentle” is not the same as the last. With every repetition there is less time, less life, less decorum, less room to think of something clever, the light is dying, your three minutes are up, your nineteen lines exhausted.

Villanelles and the Blues know we must be quick on our feet. Our music can be clever. The guitar riff in “Smokestack Lightning” is cooler than you or I will ever be, cruising down the street on foot or by car, solo or with entourage, taking a long drink, taking in a tall glass of water, butterfly kisses or bump and grind. If Borges played guitar he’d riff off “Smokestack Lightning.”

When Muddy Waters wishes he were a catfish in “Rollin’ Stone,” it’s unexpected and unclear. Who wants to be an ugly fish in a deep, blue sea? Ah, but the completion: “I would have all you good-lookin’ women / fishin’, fishin’ after me.”

Even in this state, desired. And while it’s satisfying to the singer’s ego, it’s satisfying to the listener, as well – create and then solve confusion. There’s a tiny joy in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” when she completes her tenth line, which we know must rhyme with master, disaster, fluster, and faster. She gives us “And look! my last, or / next-to-last…” For a split-second, we know the line is going to fail, our subconscious brains already warning us that there is no “–er” to “last.” And then she solves our confusion with a slant rhyme. In a couplet, it would be mildly gratifying, but here we’ve been set up with five(!) direct rhymes leading up to this moment. It’s the repetition in the Blues as the singer works out that final, climactic line. It’s a trapeze act.

There’s a tightrope to be walked here, as well. Whatever you call the product of blending two traditions – mashup, rock ‘n roll, what-have-you – there’s a history of plagiarism into which you’re entering. Metric asks, “Who would you rather be: the Beatles or The Rolling Stones?” The better question here is, would you rather be The Rolling Stones, who sought out and promoted Howlin’ Wolf to British audiences, acknowledging and celebrating his influence, or Led Zeppelin, ripping off lyrics from Willie Dixon and only giving him credit after being sued? Actually, as my colleague Dan Nappo pointed out to me, the Stones got sued, too, just not by Howlin’ Wolf. I’d like to think that just hammers home the point even more.

The instinct to nick, as Robert Plant put it, is strong. There’s a long, long trail of truly anonymous Blues tunes, and there are a lot of songs for which you have to go searching to find out where they came from (female musicians, sometimes, as you might or might not expect), and there are a lot of phrases that might as well belong to anybody given how much they pop up. I was listening to Howlin’ Wolf when I wrote “Villanelle in royal blue,” but I made sure to deviate a bit while still dipping into tradition. Wolf may have boasted that he was a “back door man,” but he was (significantly) not given to excessive drink like so many of his talented but ill-fated brethren. I wanted to channel his braggadocio, his bulk, his “300 pounds of muscle and man” (a line off of which I directly riff in another of the villanelles), but I wanted these things to point backwards as a signpost, not claim them wholesale.

My words to my daughter, by way of the Blues: Don’t be appropriate/d.

There is a related fear that comes with tradition, and that is stereotype. The obvious concern is writing the poetic equivalent of wearing blackface. As a White poet incorporating the Blues (or, in other poems, Hip Hop), where should I draw the line regarding dialect, idiomatic speech, etc? Robert Nighthawk can let out some of my favorite dirty lyrics in all of music, “I got a sweet, black angel / I likes the way she spreads her wings,” and the “likes” is absolutely the word that must be there. Contrariwise, I have to just like those lines. When I render the speaker’s lines “And I’ve always loved to read / a book with a hard swallow of whiskey / in the morning,” I have options along a spectrum for completing them. I chose “holding the glass philosophically,” but I could have tried

a)      holdin’ the glass philosophically
b)     holdin’ de glass philosophically
c)      holdin’ de glass filosofikly

As the options progress, they become more offensive within the context of the poem, not necessarily because they represent dialect (which I do use elsewhere in the collection), but because they appear increasingly artificial, how a poet might think his speaker is supposed to sound rather than how his speaker hears himself. He is crafty in this poem, speaking in tongues – a villain (drinking and womanizing), a villager (a Blues-man), and a villanelle. He is salt-of-the-earth, but no, more than that, fleur de sel, a Creole/creole dish. He has studied his arts, poetic and carnal. If he were to say “holdin’,” he’d do it with an italicized wink, just once, just to let us know he could.

The common (wo)man. Who? Would a French peasant in the 16th Century appreciate Howlin’ Wolf? Would “Wang Dang Doodle” rock out raucously in an inn somewhere, ale flowing and feet jumping? Is that even the question? Isn’t it “whose?” Whose commoner, and what does it mean to grab that tradition and twist? I know we’re talking Blues, but that’s one of the beautiful things about the mashup – it doesn’t judge. Layer Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” over U2’s “With or Without You,” fuzz up the bassline, and you have a most delicious guilty pleasure. Borges mixed detective stories and esoteric knowledge, Lovecraft and medieval bestiaries. It’s not elevation – that would be condescending. In Fantasia 2000, “Rhapsody in Blue” gets introduced as Jazz that Gershwin picked up off the street and dressed up. Bullshit. Jazz looked over at Classical and slapped it on the back for growing some balls.

But we’re back to this: whose Blues? Whose villanelles? Whose tradition?

Transbluesency, baby. Transcend not the Blues – transcend through the Blues. Don’t slum – that’s rude. Slim, slam, phat, goddam. Don’t be appropriate. Wit is not wisdom, but it’s a lot more fun. Don’t appropriate. Just find the truth of yourself starting with your feet, your fucking, your good, course growl. Howl.

And there’s so much about which you can howl. War – ours, others’. Greed. Pride. The ever-present fratboy rapist. The Radio Shack owner’s a racist. Tithes misplaced. These obsessive observations just from my last two weeks, a villanelle’s refrains. You can sing Blue about just about the whole world, and if you’re going to do it, why are you doing that and not fixing it? If you’re Muddy, if you’re Wolf, there’s a whole world on top of you that keeps you from fixing it, but in this instant, you’re writing a villanelle, and you’re JeFF, and so, as you heard those times in Chicago, so what?

Maybe it’s a spell. Maybe this Black music is white magic, maybe black magic reclaimed. Maybe A1/b/A2 is how you bind today’s evils, like Howlin’ Wolf might have bound them A/A/a. Maybe you just like to dance, and you’ve got two left feet, but 16th Century France by way of Chicago helps you keep a beat.

Howl. Howl until you run out of words. Howl the night. Howl until the all of you is one great syllable shaking the mic.


Villanelle in royal blue

After all, the bottle said, “Drink me,”
and I’ve a complicated relationship with authority.
And I’ve always loved to read

a book with a hard swallow of whiskey
in the morning, holding the glass philosophically.
After all the bottle said, “drink me”

was the thing that concerned me least.
“Bring the gun.” “Is it so hard to steal?”
and “I’ve always loved to read

a woman’s fortune in her legs as she sneaks
out of her house, married
after all.” The bottle said, “Drink.” Me,

I was never in any shape to disagree,
not the author of my own mor(t)ality,
and I’ve always loved to read

a hard life’s lesson in a good book. Leave
it in the book, because my way is easy.
After all, the bottle said “Drink me,”
and I’ve always loved to read.

JeFF Stumpo has his fingers in a lot of pies. He owns Wonderland Books & Games in Martin, TN and teaches part-time at the University of Tennessee branch there. He is the author of three chapbooks – the multilingual El Océano y la Serpiente / The Ocean and the Serpent, Riff Raff, and The Icarus Sketches. He’s shopping around a manuscript titled diluvium that combines visual poetry and rhyming verse, Romantic and Postmodern sensibilities, the Biblical Flood and Humanism. Sometimes you’ll catch him featuring at a poetry slam, open mic, university, or high school. His website is www.jeffstumpo.com.

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