Blowin' our blues away

May 1, 2002 at 12:00 am

John Lee Hooker
"Boogie Chillen"
Modern Records, 1948

Wartime Detroit must have been one helluva place — everybody haulin’ ass for the Man. The Big Three had black folks and white folks traveling to the Motor City with sky-high expectations (working for wages sure beat working yourself to death on some hardscrabble strip of land in Georgia or Tennessee), then working overtime turning out tanks and trucks in those highly lucrative days of fighting Hitler.

Into this scene of segregated living and exploitation for all rode one John Lee Hooker in 1943 (the year of our infamous race riot). Born in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1917, he migrated to Memphis at the age of 15 (where he worked as an usher in a movie theater and played guitar for change on street corners) and then to Cincinnati before landing a job in Motown as a janitor at Chrysler.

Living-while-black in Detroit mostly meant residing in “Black Bottom,” the main thoroughfare of which was Hastings Street (now a distant memory, with 99 percent of it bulldozed in the early 1960s to make way for the I-75 expressway). Hooker played the many clubs in that thriving, jumping scene and in 1948 recorded a 78 rpm slice of wax that would change blues-based popular music forever: “Boogie Chillen.”

Over a modestly electrified, pulsating one-chord vamp, Hooker sings and talks a seminal tale of life-altering music, with only his tapping foot for a rhythm section. The history-making lyrics are as follows:

Well my ma didn’t ’low me,
just to stay out all night long
(oh Lord)
Well my ma didn’t ’low me,
just to stay out all night long
I didn’t care what she didn’t ’low,
I would boogie anyhow

When I first hit this town, people,
I was walkin’ down Hastings Street
Everybody was talkin’ about
Henry’s Swing Club
I decided I’d drop in there that night
When I got there, I say, “Yeah, people”
They was really havin’ a ball!
(Yes, I know it)
Boogie, chillen!

One night I was laying down
I heard mama ’n’ papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama,
let that boy boogie-woogie,
It’s in him, and it got to come out
And I felt so good
Went out ’n’ boogied just the same

Recorded at United Sound Studios in Detroit, the side was released on the LA-based Modern label and went on to sell more than a million copies — within what seemed like no time, it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart. But what Hooker did to musical imaginations around the world was immeasurable.

In the turbulent postwar years, America found itself irresistibly drawn to the seduction of rhythm and blues. For a while, black and white seemed no longer as separate as chessboard squares, and R&B got renamed “rock ’n’ roll” to facilitate the marketing of a fusion of cultures and sounds. By 1955 (seven years after Hooker’s Motor City apotheosis), two of rock’s original unibombers started terrorizing the populace, young and old, black and white alike: Bo Diddley took Hooker’s one-chord vamps to new levels of trancelike undulation with “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man”; and Chuck Berry expanded “Boogie Chillen”’s theme of “youth busting out” in such tunes as “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

A whole sea change took place in our ideas about reality: that kids actually needed release from the bullshit of the adult world; that sexy satori could be had by all with the mere drop of a nickel into a jukebox slot; that rockin’ was the road and unlimited were the stakes and the pleasures. But Hooker’s 1948 lyrics already implied all of the above.

“Boogie Chillen” starts out with a classic statement of the age-old dilemma: my ma didn’t ’low me (though he’s precise about it as a matter of a curfew, we can fill in the imaginary blank with any just-say-no-ism). Soon the AAB blues tension is resolved with I didn’t care … I would boogie anyhow. In three lines, Hooker anticipates by almost 20 years that world-famous Motor City prime directive: Kick out the jams!

In the spoken-over-a-riff middle section, Hooker shifts from remembering himself as a kid to talking about being in Detroit in 1943 (he was 26 and no longer worrying about what mama didn’t ’low). Henry’s Swing Club was a major hot spot on Hastings. The people were doing what chillen all over America would soon be hankering to do, while Hooker’s gigs around the Bottom turned up the blues and rhythm machine.

At this point, after a few solo-like chord flourishes, Hooker turns the two words of the title into an order: Boogie, chillen. Then the tune closes with the most touching, inspiring words of all, as he dips into his memory again: I heard papa tell mama, let that boy boogie-woogie. Wow! Who could ask for anything more? Permission to groove, license to lose (or at least loosen) your mind.

But papa’s understanding is the real kicker, showing this to be no mere neo-liberal flabbiness at work: It’s in him, and it got to come out. Shades of Sigmund Freud, the undeniable power of the id and the libido! Or the wisdom of the down-home revivalist church, with the spirit needing to express itself and revelation delivered in its wake! Maybe a little of both.

In the ’60s, rock was telling the rest of the culture that the kids are alright — this before punk and hip hop, reacting to more than a decade of that culture’s obstinate ruthlessness, turned contrary and political again. But John Lee Hooker knew that everybody — kids, mamas and papas — was really interested, deep down, in havin’ a ball (Yes, I know it).

As the boogie vibes continued to spread out from 1948-Detroit ground zero, young rockers (particularly in England) started a blues revival and carried Hooker around on their musical shoulders. Whole bands — from the Animals and the Rolling Stones to John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers to Fleetwood Mac, from Canned Heat and George Thorogood and the Destroyers to Los Lobos — pooled their resources to do what Hooker all by himself had done on one tune (and a whole lot of others, including “Hobo Blues,” “Boom Boom” “Crawling Kingsnake” and “I’m in the Mood”): make everybody feel so good.

If Detroit R&B and rock — lest we forget the current crop of neo-garageists like the White Stripes — have a godfather, grandfather and forefather all rolled into one, and if the sounds of this great city — from Motown to Iggy to Aretha to Parliament-Funkadelic — continue to turn the world on its ear and get it up off its ass, then John Lee is the first great chapter, the Genesis, of who we are. As the man once sang, it got to come out.

Yeah, don’t we know it.

Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor and a crawling kingsnake. E-mail him at [email protected]