In the span of Howlin’ Wolf’s life and career he saw virtually the entire progression of blues from a rural, acoustic music through the birth of modern rock music. As a young man, he learned guitar from Delta master Charley Patton, and as an elder statesman performed with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. In between he sang some of the most compelling and memorable songs in all of American music, including “Back Door Man”, “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful”.
“Smokestack Lightning” is one of the crowning achievements of Howlin’ Wolf’s massive output of blues. It’s actually not a typical blues song–based around only one chord, it has no verse or chorus, but an almost stream-of-consciousness series of images punctuated by Wolf’s eerie howling falsetto. He had been performing a song for many years called “Crying at Daybreak” that contained many of the same lyrics, but recorded the definitive version in 1956. This amazing film clip of Howlin’ Wolf performing “Smokestack Lightning” live may give you goosebumps:
The “British Invasion” of the mid-60’s may have been led by pop groups like the Beatles, but The Yardbirds, one of Britain’s early blues bands were also at the leading edge. In its short history the band was the springboard for 3 of rock’s best-known guitarists, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. In fact, this 1964 live recording is one of Clapton’s earliest.
Soundgarden is not the first name that comes to mind in the context of blues. As one of the first grunge bands, they shaped the sound that Nirvana would later make into a staple of pop music. Fusing punk, alternative and heavy metal Soundgarden included “Smokestack Lightning” on their 1988 debut. The album would go on to win a 1990 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance.
Lucky Peterson has talent to spare. As a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and singer he’s had a long and varied career that began when he was a child. As a session player for people like Otis Rush and Etta James he’s proven his chops on keyboard and guitar, and his solo recordings have a wide range from traditional blues to funk to gospel. His 2003 recording of “Smokestack Lightning” is closer to Soundgarden’s version, dark, gritty and with some of the atmospheric qualities of “trance-blues”.
Here is a list of the versions of “Smokestack Lightning” tracked through time: