Fattening Frogs For Snakes

The Wolf Is At Your Door

for Pete Welding

”People back then,”
Johnny Shines has said,
”thought about magic
& all such things as that.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Wolf
was a tractor driver. As far as I knew,
he could have crawled
out of a cave,

a place of solitude,
after a full week’s rest,
to serenade us. I thought
he was a magic man—

he looked different
than anyone I’d seen, & I come along and say,
’A guy that played like Wolf,
he’d sold his soul to the devil.’”

Chester Arthur Burnett,
born June 10, 1910
in West Point, Mississippi,
east of the Delta, near Tupelo,

moved with his family
to Young & Marra’s plantation
near Ruleville, in 1923
at the age of 13.

”I got my first guitar
in 1928—the 15th of January,”
the Wolf told Pete Welding. “My father
bought it for me

before we left Ruleville. We were living
out there on the Quiver River
on Boosey's plantation. At that time
I was working on the farm

with my father,
baling hay & driving tractors,
fixing fences, picking cotton & pulling corn.

”There was a lot of music around there—
work songs. Some of the fellows’d
just get out there & sing
as they worked—

plowing songs, songs
to call mules by.
They’d get out there mornings
& get to plowing

& get to hollering & singing.
They’d make up these songs
as they’d go along. See,
people make up their music

just like you think about
what you want to do.
They make their sound
& their music

just like they feel,
& they sing like they feel.
They made up the worksongs
as they felt. If they felt

somebody
had taken something from them,
that's what they'd sing about—
however they felt.

”It was in the late 20’s
when I decided to go out
on my own. I just went running
’round thru the country

playing like Charley Patton & them did.
The places I’d hit—
I’d go to Greenwood,
Winona, & back to my home,

West Point, Mississippi,
& go to Columbus,
& then Indianola & Greenville,
Mississippi. Then I’d come over

to the Arkansas side of the river
around West Memphis & Parkin,
& Pine Bluff & Brinkley, Arkansas.
Just all thru

the cotton belt country,
& mostly by myself.
When I started to playing guitar
& blowing my harp,

anything come to mind
I’d just sing it
& rhyme it up
& make a song out of it. Mostly

I’d just take things I heard
from people around there. I don’t think
I got any of my music from church
because, well, I never did

go to church much.
I just picked up music,
just playing guitar. I mostly
just stayed in the country,
farming.

”It was Sonny Boy Williamson—
the second one,
Rice Miller— who learnt me harmonica.

He married my sister Mary
in the 30's.
That's when I met him;
he was just loafing around,

blowing his harp. He could blow,
though. But he lived too fast—
he was drinking a lot of whiskey,
& that whiskey killed him.

”Sonny Boy
showed me how to play—
I used to strum guitar for him. See,
he used to come there

& sit up half the night
& blow the harp to Mary.
I liked the harp, so I’d fool around,
& while he’s kissing Mary,

I’d try to get him to show me something,
you know. He’d grab the harp
& then he’d show me a couple of chords. I’d go
’round the house then, & I’d work on it.

”It was somewhere around this time
that I met Robert Johnson. Me & him
played together, and me & him & Sonny Boy

played together awhile. I met Robert
in Robinsonville,
Mississippi—his mother & [step]father
stayed out there. I worked

a little while with him
around thru the country—
we was playing around Greenwood,
Itta Bena & Moorehead. We didn’t stay

together too long
because I would go back & forth
to my father, & help him
in the farming.

I hung around with Robert
about 2 years,
off & on. He traveled a lot.

”When I’d go out
on them plantations to play,
the people played me so hard—
they look for you to play

from 7 o’clock in the evening
until 7 o’clock the next morning.
That’s too rough. I was getting
about a dollar & a half,

& that was too much playing
by myself. People would yell,
’Come on, play a little, baby!’

A bunch would come in,
& they was ready
to play & dance. So I decided
I would get a band,

get two or three more fellows
to help me out—that was in West Memphis
in 1948
when I formed my own band

& began to follow music
as a career. We played
all through the states of Arkansas,
Alabama, Mississippi, & Missouri.

The band was using
all electric,
amplified instruments at that time.

”I was broadcasting, too,
on a radio station in West Memphis,
KWEM. I had a steady job
on KWEM. It came on at 3 o’clock in the evening.

It was in 1949
that I started to broadcast.
I produced the show myself,
went around & spoke to store owners

to sponsor it, &
I advertised shopping goods. Soon
I commenced advertising grain,
different seeds such as corn,

oats, wheat,
then tractors, tools & plows.
Sold the advertising myself,
got my own sponsors.

”After moving to Chicago,
I found it easy to get into those clubs,
playing my music,
because the people had heard about me

before I came—the records were out
before I came to Chicago. Right off,
I started playing in a place at 13th & Ashland. Muddy Waters

had been playing there
at that time, & they put me in there.
Then I went to stretching out all across town.

”Now,
I don't think
my music has changed much over the years,

not much really,
but of course I did have to
step up
with the tempo. I used to play

very slowly, but I had to come up
with the tempo
of today. Well,
now, near about everybody

got that rocking sound. Well,
I just tried to have a good sound
& play something different— my music!"

— Bath, Michigan
March 8, 1985/
New Orleans
March 5, 1998