Howling Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), known as Howling Wolf, was a Chicago blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player, originally from Mississippi. With a booming voice and imposing physical presence, he is one of the best-known Chicago blues artists. Several of his songs, including “Smokestack Lightning”, “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful”, have become blues and blues rock standards. In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Howling Wolff number 54 on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.

Regarding his military service, Wikipedia simply states, “On April 9, 1941, Burnett was inducted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at several bases around the country. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, he was discharged on November 3, 1943.”

From the National Archives Medic has obtained the Official Military Personnel File of Chester A. Burnett.

As effectively told by CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St Clair, Howling Wolf’s story is elsewhere. Burnett did not volunteer. He was tracked down by the Army and forced into service. Years later, he said Delta plantation owners had alerted military authorities because he refused to work in the fields.

From there it was all downhill. In the era’s racist and segregated army Burnett was sent to Pine Bluff, Arkansas for basic training, then given long hours performing menial work.

Next, oddly assigned to decoding communications–he could not read–Burnett was transferred to a tutoring camp in Washington state. Here a sadistic drill instructor repeatedly beat the illiterate man for spelling and reading errors. The endless physical punishment only increased Burnett’s stubbornness-but eventually he collapsed. Soon he began having uncontrollable shaking fits, fainting and dizzy spells, and mental confusion.

In 1943 Burnett was evaluated at an Army mental hospital. The notes reflect the racism in the medical community of the time. One doctor was impressed by Burnett’s enormous size 16 feet. Without evidence, another physician felt that Burnett suffered from schizophrenia caused by syphilis. A note indicated Burnett was an “hysteric,” a cover-all Freudian term reserved for women, but applied to blacks by Army doctors who saw them as mentally incompetent and unable to accommodate Army life. Another medical note described Burnett as a “mental defective.”

Even though Howling Wolf played blues songs to pass the time, none of the physicians knew of his reputation or seemed interested in the arc of his life: from living in poverty in Mississippi, to the road houses of West Memphis, to an Army base in Washington state. None seemed to realize that their patient was in fact a musical genius and renowned performer.

For two months Burnett was lashed to his bed, eugenically examined and interrogated. Did he like sex with men? Had he tortured animals? Hated his father? He was beaten, electro-shocked and drugged when he refused the Army’s prescribed treatments. At last in November 1943 Howling Wolf was found unfit for duty and given an honorable discharge. On his discharge papers, only the word “disability” hints at the horrors inflicted upon him by the US military.

“The Army ain’t no place for a black man,” Howling Wolf recalled years later. “Jus’ couldn’t take all that bossin’ around, I guess. The Wolf’s his own boss.”


Jeffrey St. Claire, “The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man,” How the Wolf Got Caged (CounterPunch, see link above).