John Lee Hooker Never Looked Back

John Lee Hooker grew up deep in the Mississippi apartheid of the ’20s, sharecropping, dreaming by the old Victrola, picking up KFFA from Helena on his family’s crackling crystal radio. He stuttered when he talked, but his voice could fill a church when he sang. He got his first guitar from a traveling salesman, but his father called it the devil and only let him play it in the barn behind the house.

Charley Patton was everywhere, whooping and whispering of dark roads and high water, popping and hissing on thick black 78s. Same goes for Son House, his slicing, metallic slide echoing from juke joints throughout the Delta. You can hear Patton and House—and the doomed, haunted cries of Robert Johnson—drifting through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but you won’t find them in John Lee. Hooker’s one-chord boogie is only a degree removed from Africa. Its lonesome, stumbling rhythm snaked up through Texas and Louisiana, through the brutal blues of Robert Pete Williams and Blind Lemon Jefferson, clear to the hills of North Mississippi, where Hooker learned it from a guitar-playing stepfather, and where it lives to this day in the children of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. From Senegal to Senatobia.

Hooker learned his blues and held fast. He never caved, never swayed to a citified 13th chord, a sliding 9th, or even a slide. Hooker knew what he had from the moment he found it out in the barn, on the rusted strings of the salesman’s cheap guitar. He used his blues to flee Mississippi, in the great postwar migration out of the South’s hopelessness, to the grinding, industrial powerhouse of Detroit. “There was nothin’ there,” Hooker said of Mississippi, much later in his life. “And there still ain’t nothin’ there.”

Hooker chose Detroit over Chicago to dodge the competition, and ironically wound up fighting for gigs against T-Bone Walker, who had landed in Detroit as well. Surprisingly, Hooker loved Walker, the consummate, uptown guitar-hero blues showman. “I idolized him like I did God,” Hooker said. “I followed him around like a puppy after a bone, and he got to know me, so sometimes he would let me pick up his guitar and play some.” Even in the shadow of Walker—a superstar of the blues, a profound influence on Chuck Berry and countless others—Hooker stayed true to the sound he carried up from Mississippi.

In Detroit, Hooker was discovered fronting a small combo at the Apex Bar, and got booked for a cheap recording session at Pan American studios. He cut four songs quickly–the last one was “Boogie Chillen.”

“Boogie Chillen” struck like lightning—perfectly capturing the excitement, hope, and trepidation of the millions of black Southerners who found themselves in the strange, cold North, immigrants in their own country. It was the electrified sound of the South, but the story was pure Detroit: When I first come to town people, I was walking down Hastings Street / I heard everybody talking about Henry’s Swing Club / I decided I’d drop in there that night / And when I got there, I said, yes people / They was really having a ball.

“Boogie Chillen” is the sound of a man alone, far from home, holding on to and letting go of everything he knows. Hooker stomps his foot to keep time, and a hollowbody electric is his sole, perfect accompaniment—not as open and spacious as the acoustic Houston blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, not as clipped and snarling as the grinding solidbodies that would soon power the new Chicago blues. Acoustic and electric, past and future, hill country and Black Bottom, hope and heartbreak, the murderous, futureless Southern countryside and the brutal, ruthless streets of the North. “Boogie Chillen” is all of this, but it is a celebration—a defiant reminder that this music is not about getting into the blues. It is about getting out of them. And I felt so good / I was boogiein’ just the same, oh Lord.

Hooker was working as a janitor when “Boogie Chillen” exploded, selling a million copies in the blink of an eye. Just like Patton in the Delta a generation earlier, John Lee’s voice was everywhere. Well my momma she didn’t allow me just to stay out all night long, oh Lord…. “Everywhere you went, that was all you’d hear coming out of windows and stores and the neighbors’ houses,” Hooker recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t need this broom. I can make it on my own.’ And I never looked back.”

-Ari Surdoval

John Lee Hooker performs “Boom Boom” on some television show in 1966.

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