The Story Behind the Photos
Part 5: My stop in Chicago, late
Despite his “tail-dragger” stage persona and beyond his incredible creative talents, Chester Burnett was clearly a family man… sweet and caring, to friends and family alike, and very politically astute and conscious!
I visited Wolf in Chicago the next summer, at his home and spent time at his club too, while driving to New York City with a buddy in his slow VW van. We showed up basically unannounced, as I’d called about 20 minutes before coming there. No problem! We’d been driving nearly non-stop for three days, with only one night’s rest somewhere, and Wolf’s wife Lillie almost immediately made us a fantastic breakfast, which I may still own fat cells from.
During breakfast, Wolf offered me money, asking if I had enough for my trip to New York. Even though I was living unemployment check to unemployment check at that time, and would have loved some extra cash, I could not accept it from Wolf. He’d done so much for me already, and I didn’t even yet know how much. But even then, it was a lot. And the fact he’d offered is just more evidence of this man’s sweet and loving almost unconditional caring.
There, I photographed Wolf and Lillie, Wolf and his dogs, and also daughters Barbra and Bettye, who were themselves a lot of fun at the time to “play photographer” with, especially Barbra, whoenthusiastically showed me some radical model’s poses. The shots I got of Wolf with Lillie virtually radiate the tremendous love and partnership between them, beyond any words.
One of these pictures was used for the main image at central Lillie’s funeral (which makes me both sad and yet proud to have taken it, and that it meant that much to the family - - or, actually, “captured” it, because with a photo like that it’s all one can do... see the moment and what it is comprised of, frame it, all of which I have gifts for doing, the moreso with someone with whom there is such a meta-rapport as excisted between myself and Wolf. It was for being able to "catch" photos such as this and a few other subjects who’s intensity and my ability to connect to it and capture its energetic image was most notable that I later was to name my photography business not just “Reflections Photography” but “Reflections of the Soul Through a Glass Eye" (the eye being the lens.)
My friend Patrick Bandler, with whom I’d been driving east (who was also a very good white Delta-style blues guitar player (whom I’d been drumming with in a short-lived latin flavored blues and blues rock band featuring Latino blues-rock Bobby Santiago and with a weekly gig at the H.A. frequented traincar club called Red Balloon (not the North Beach one to be sure)
Patrick was totally blown away that I could just “go visit Howling Wolf, “ dropping in “like that” and, much less, bring him along for the visit, and he seemed somewhat in “shock and awe” the whole time we were there.
Then, later that same afternoon, with conversations done for the time being and photos taken, Barbra and Bettye took us on a driving tour around Chicago. First we went to the North Side and then we even parked for a while on West Side where, occasionally getting some quizzical looks from some passers-by, we watched the Black Muslim’s First Annual Parade pass by. The actor known once as “Stepin Fetchit” threw a commemorative pin-back be-ribboned button and a whistle from a float, which I rushed out and recovered, and that became one my first of about 3000 buttons that I’ve collected, mostly from that timeframe.
Later that same night, we went to see Wolf perform and also hung out with him and the band members at a small West Side club he co-owned out on West Roosevelt .“Key Largo.”
Finding this club… I drove around the neighborhood on the West Side for about half an hour, and as we circled around a few square blocks looking for the club and a place to park, there was, amazingly, the frequent continuous sound of glass breaking. I don’t think we were near any “recycling center” at the time, either.
At the club, after the band played a set, we bought them drinks, and they bought us drinks. There, most of the conversation we had at that moment was about the violent or near-violent episodes that had happened to them lately on the West Side. One member mentioned how a guy had stuck a gun in his window to rob him when he stopped at a red light, and how he’d shown the stick-up guy HIS gun, saying, “Mine's bigger AND has dumdums” to dissuade him.
We had to leave directly for New York from the club, because Patrick had to meet his mother in New York as soon as possible, having arranged to take some job at her new nightclub. Wolf offered that we could spend the night at his place, and of course I hated to leave. (If I a'followed my 1st mind, I'd a'stayed the 2nd time)
Earlier that day, in Wolf’s backyard and garage, we’d had a long conversation about society, racial and class disenfranchisement, social change, and more. I was very impressed by his awareness and humanism . Nothing I said surprised him, though I was very (realistically) utopian and anti-establishment.
At some point he told me that he wanted his next song to be “about astronauts!” I commented that I wished the government would instead focus on equitably fixing some problems right here, and not waste money going to the moon first, with such economic disparity in evidence. Wolf agreed, saying, “What do we need to go to the moon for, man? We’re can't even grow enough corn here on earth to feed all the people!” It was clear he felt this veru deeply.
Then – as I’d let him know at times (and in fact we had produced on that tape one of my first blues songs) that I was a songwrite writer (some later published and recorded,since, with more to follow in 2010, pending., Mike Wilhelm had the good taste to use the first two blues songs I had written, one which Wolf had backed me on harp, later I backed Mike Wilhelm on the same.
Now this next may sound more and more like a dream , or since it never got to happen happen as planned, more like a nightmare - - but, Wolf asked me to write him a song! about going to the moon, something involving astronauts. I said I would, again was moved and honored by his serious request and faith in my abilities.
Now, it’s one of the biggest regrets of my life that I did not complete that task. I started writing it but it became hard for me. I was traveling, plus I had issues I was unaware of at the time that kept me from being all that disciplined. So at some point in the writing, this song I’d begun turned it into a more easily-created “political poem.” I decided to write a new one when back in S. F.
I returned to San Francisco three months later, and after scaring crashers out of my vacant but rented apartment, I got back into college.
Then… as I was young, and not wise at all about such things, I just “took for granted” that Wolf would be around forever, that I could always do that song, and that I could always just connect with him, whenever I needed to. (Yet in ways. even now, that 's TRUE!)
As many know, Wolf later came to record the intensely dynamic anti-racist “Coon on the Moon.” (Yeah -- astronauts! And, hey -- political, too.)
I was going through a lot during these years, became quickly once again very involved in grass-roots community serivces design, grant-writing, implementation & developent other social change efforts and community organizing, grad school, campus ethnic studies and women's studies development , became student body V.P. while personal demons battling and creative and intellectual growth continued. All that plus some aging things are still happening, actually.
Ironically, at the time, and in some regards therefore sadly for so many as well as myself, I never gave a thought to my photos of Wolf being “worth anything” in any way to anyone BUT myself, for whom they were a rare, rich very personal emotionally-healing linkage with this great person and incomparable and influential blues legend. (How many times I'd heard his songs covered or style copied, yet without credit or reference, and wherever possible, I spoke to that oversight.
I can only guess this was because those photos meant SO MUCH to me personally, therefore they seemed so solely personal in such ways that I simply didn’t consider their benefit to others who may value Wolf as an artist and person, much less their “commercial value”). But, of course, now I know otherwise.
© 2004 Sandy Guy Schoenfeld