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Mark Hoffman, a Seattle-based musician, writer and self-described “blues geek” was astounded to learn that there were no published biographies of Howlin’ Wolf and many other American blues legends.

The search for Howlin’ Wolf

A ten-year journey to uncover the truth

by Mary Lou Sullivan

From State of the Blues,
The official publication of the
Connecticut Blues Society
Summer 2004

After reading Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues and Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway in the early 1990s, Mark Hoffman, a Seattle-based musician, writer and self-described “blues geek,” started looking for biographies of the great bluesmen. He was astounded when he couldn’t find any. “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” said Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Hoffman began thinking along the same lines.
In 1994, he traveled to the Mississippi Delta to see if a book about Howlin’ Wolf was in the making. He stopped at Jim O’Neal’s record store in Clarksdale and learned about James Segrest, who was working in a record store in Drew, Mississippi and writing a doctoral dissertation in history that included research on Wolf and Delta blues. Segrest had spent several years interviewing Wolf’s family and people who knew him in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hoffman returned to the Delta in 1996 and offered to help with the book. His background as a writer and Segrest’s skills as a historian and researcher made an ideal combination. Together—with Hoffman in Seattle and Segrest in Alabama—they interviewed 250 people, collaborating by phone, mail, and email, only meeting twice in their ten-year quest to write and publish the first biography of Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf.
The response to Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf is impressive. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called it a “fluid, fascinating and thoroughly researched biography.” The New York Times called it “Essential reading...this generation’s first and probably last full portrait of one of the giants of American music . . .”
Mark Hoffman talks with State of the Blues about his literary journey.

When did you first hear Howlin’ Wolf?

I first heard Wolf when I was in high school in the late 1960s. I was playing drums with a band that later became Robert Cray’s high school rock band. I was into the usual 60s suspects at the time—the Stones, Cream, Hendrix, the Beatles, the Doors, etc. A bunch of my buddies were starting to dabble in blues, and like them, I started listening to Wolf, Muddy, Robert Johnson, Magic Sam, and the other “real” bluesmen. Wolf’s intensity blew me away. I’ve never heard anyone who threw himself more into his singing. And he had a very unusual voice, which made his singing even more startling.

Why were you drawn to Wolf?

I was drawn to Wolf as an artist because of his passion for his art. His music meant the world to him and that comes out in his voice. At first, I didn’t know anything about him personally, so it was all about his passion for his music. I wondered if Wolf was the same kind of wild man offstage as he was onstage. I found out he was completely different offstage: hardworking, generous, disciplined, and very shrewd. Many of the musicians we interviewed were quite young when they met him, and they looked up him to as a role model—a guy who gave everything he had to his art and just wouldn’t lay down and quit.

Why did you think it was important to preserve Wolf’s memory?

Wolf was one of the greatest performers of the 20th Century, and he was a profound influence on later musicians. In many ways, he was the first rock star. When I started thinking about this in the early 1990s, I thought it was ridiculous that no one had written a full-length book about Wolf or Muddy or Little Walter or Sonny Boy or any of the other giants of the blues. But it was curiosity more than altruism that drove me—curiosity and ego. Curiosity because I just wanted to know what Wolf was like as a person and as a performer. How did he get that voice, and what was he like back in the 1930s, long before he became famous? What would drive a man to become such an over-the-top performer? What was he like offstage? I thought I’d be able to find those answers eventually, and I wanted to be the first writer to put them into a book.

We tried not to rely on what was already known about Wolf, because a lot of those “known facts” turned out to be myths.


Why did it take 10 years?

Because above all, we wanted to do it right, which meant doing original research. We tried not to rely on what was already known about Wolf, because a lot of those “known facts” turned out to be myths. We had to rely on earlier research at times, but in relying on someone else’s research, it’s always hard to figure out what’s accurate. That’s the great dilemma of any biographer: What’s true about this person? It becomes even harder when the person is dead, because you can’t ask him. And Jim and I were both working full-time while doing this book. It was unbelievably difficult at times. It was all self-funded, and at times we simply ran out of money and energy. We did get an advance, but not a big one. There’s no real money in writing blues biographies. It’s always a labor of love. Jim and I both lost money in working on this book, but money was never why we did it.

At what point did you finally feel that you’d gotten to the heart and soul of Wolf?

For me it was when I finally pieced together the story of his childhood. I suppose that’s the key to almost anyone’s life, but Wolf’s childhood was especially grim. It explained almost everything about his personality He was an abused child. Another point was when we found out why Wolf left the army in 1943 while World War II was still raging. I had to send in four Freedom of Information Act requests to get his complete military medical records, which told the whole amazing story.

Any surprises that caught you off guard?

I was surprised by how autobiographical Wolf’s music was. He didn’t write a lot of songs, but the ones he did write all had deep personal significance of some kind. I was also surprised by how different Wolf was onstage and offstage. Before I knew anything about him, I thought I’d be writing a book about an alcoholic wild man—a nutcase. But Wolf wasn’t like that at all. He was very responsible, very together, and very hardworking—never a slacker. His childhood abuse made him very wary of strangers and tough on the outside, but he was sensitive inside, especially to people in pain, and was very protective of younger people.

If you could turn back time and meet Wolf, what would you say?

I’d tell him how much his music meant to me and countless other people who are into the blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I’d tell him that not long before he died, Sam Phillips called Wolf “his greatest discovery” I’d tell him that everyone who knew Wolf well still loves him and misses him. And I’d tell him that what he told Vaan Shaw came true: most people wouldn’t let him into their homes thirty or forty years ago, but now he’s part of our culture.