Back Door Man

Howlin' Wolf
Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett (1910–1976), known as Howlin’ Wolf, is one of the greatest American blues singers. In 1960 Willie Dixon (1915–1992), the bass player in his band, wrote for him the song “Back Door Man,” which was recorded in Chicago in June, then released in 1961 as the B-side to “Wang Dang Doodle.”

In the culture of the Southern United States where Burnett was born, the phrase ‘back-door man’ refers to a man having an affair with a married woman, who uses the back door as an exit before the husband comes home. In this funny song, the ‘back door man’ is known to many women (called here ‘little girls’), but not to their husbands. Being shot by a jealous man, the nurse cries to save him; then, accused of murder, the judge’s wife cries to have him set free, while the cop’s wife cries pleading not to take him down; indeed, these three women belong to his numerous lovers. Finally, the husband ‘can eat pork and beans’ while he ‘eats mo’ chicken’ than ‘any man seen,’ in the metaphorical sense, as ‘chick’ also means ‘girl.’

Pork and beans
Pork and Beans – from Genius

Unlike 12-bar blues music, which relies on three chords, this songs revolves around a single chord, giving it an obsessive atmosphere. Here is the original 1961 version from YouTube:

There are also longer versions with instrumental parts, for instance this one from The Howlin’ Wolf Album (1969):

Here are the lyrics from Genius:

Back Door Man
words & music by Willie Dixon

I am a back door man
I am a back door man
Well the men don’t know, but the little girls understand

When everybody’s tryin’ to sleep
I’m somewhere making my midnight creep
Every morning, when the rooster crow
Something tell me, I got to go

I am a back door man
I am a back door man
Well the men don’t know, but little girls understand

They take me to the doctor, shot full o’ holes
Nurse cried, please save the soul
Killed him for murder, first degree
Judge’s wife cried, let the man go free

I am a back door man
I am a back door man
Well the, men don’t know, but little girls understand

Stand out there
Cop’s wife cried, don’t take him down
Rather be dead, six feets in the ground
When you come home you can eat pork and beans
I eats mo’ chicken, any man seen

I am a back door man
I am a back door man

In 1970 Willie Dixon recorded his own version of the song. It appeared as the first track of his album I Am the Blues. There is a video of it from YouTube:

The lyrics (available on Genius) are slightly different from those sung by Howlin’ Wolf, in particular the refrain:

I am, the backdoor man
I am, the backdoor man
Well, the men don’t know
But the little girls they understand

There have been many other interpretations of the song, in particular by The Doors in their first studio album (1966). Here the music is different, following the 12-bar blues arrangement; on the other hand, the lyrics (available on Genius) are much reduced, with many sentences replaced by shouts and empty words. One can hear both the original and the 2006 remastered versions on YouTube.

Paul Peel – A Venetian Bather
Paul Peel – A Venetian Bather (1889) – Pigtails in Paint

The song has been seen as a black man’s revenge on Jim Crow segregation and racism. Now the phrase ‘back door man’ can also be erotically interpreted as a man practising anal sex. It is certainly with this meaning that the phrase was used in the highly erotic song “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin (whose lyrics plagiarise those of “You Need Love,” another song by Willie Dixon). This, with the repeated reference to ‘the little girls,’ adds to the strangeness of the song.

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