Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPLU All Blues host John Kessler has expanded "The Blues Time Machine," which has been a popular segment on his weekend blues shows. The weekly series tracks one great blues song through history - from its earliest recording to its latest and sometimes, with some surprising interpretations. "The Blues Time Machine" airs on KPLU on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. during the "Blue Plate Special," and on All Blues Saturdays and Sundays at 8 and 11 p.m.

The Wolf Howls on 'Smokestack Lightning'

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 are the complete versions of “Smokestack Lightning” tracked through time:

Howlin’ Wolf “Smokestack Lightning” 1956

The Yardbirds “Smokestack Lightning” 1964

Soundgarden “Smokestack Lightning” 1988

Lucky Peterson “Smokestack Lightning” 2003

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.