What do a middle-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn and a middle-age black ex-farm worker from the Mississippi Delta have in common? Just a feeling called "the blues." A tribute to Muddy Waters.
When I was 15 I lived in one of those big brick houses in a Brooklyn Jewish neighborhood. I had a group of friends and we all did the same things. We called each other by our last names, played sewer-to-sewer football, dressed in T-shirts and dungarees and hung around on Saturday nights eating take-out Chinese from King Ho. But mostly we waited—waited to drive... waited to get the courage up to ask the girls out... waited for the parents to leave so we could hit the liquor cabinet... waited for something to do—waited to get old enough so our lives could get started.
Around that time I bought my first blues album. It was called Live Wire Blues by Albert King. It floored me. Literally. I would lie down on the green wall-to-wall carpeting in our living room and place my head right between the two detachable speakers from our Zenith Sound Center, and listen full blast to those burning, twisting notes from King's guitar. The music touched off something in me, something very sad but at the same time liberating and exultant. I became a blues proselytizer. I tried desperately to get my friends to listen but it was no go. They simply could not make that very small leap from Hendrix, the Beatles and the Doors to Albert, and B.B. and Muddy Waters.
i twthe blues bad such a profound effect on me, but I now know that it changed my life. It broke the pattern that locked me into Brooklyn adolescence, providing my first real inkling of the violent, powerful and brutal world outside of my sheltered borough. I remember lying sleeplessly in bed on summer nights, listening to the sound of the blues on the radio mingle with the traffic noises through the open window, until I felt I was swirling in time and space. Those voices from the '30s sounded so true and real they almost brought me to tears.
I began picking out the blues on the piano, mimicking Albert King's solo lines. At first I was frustrated by what seemed to be the piano's limitations, but eventually I stumbled upon the discordant, hammer-fisted approach almost all pianists use to make the European scale conform to the sliding pitches needed for the blues. I'd sit at the piano in our living room, howling about my home in the Delta, while a few feet away my bar-mitzvah picture stood on the coffee table. But I never felt the incongruity.
I began playing the harmonica, always carrying it with me, ready at a moment's notice to brandish my identity as a bluesman. Sure, I was wrapped up in the mythology of the blues. How could I not be? The blues world of hard luck and hard drinkin' and fast times and long-legged mamas reached its musty arms around me and grabbed me (this tall, thin, half-mustached Jewish boy) to its pulsating bosom. But, despite all its romantic allure, there was something about the music that always cut me to the bone.
Years later in college I began to drift away from the blues and got into jazz. Dazzled by anything so hard to understand, I was thrilled by the incomprehensible cascade of notes that jazz seemed to be. Eventually, as jazz became more familiar to me, I found that the players I dug most were those who used the blues-feel in their playingmusicians like Lester Young and Gene Ammons who were able, like the great bluesmen, to perform that magical alchemy that can transform a single note into a rainbow of emotion. Now, 15 years after buying Live Wire Blues Power, I'm back home with the blues. The man that called me home was the legendary king of the Chicago blues sound, Muddy Waters.
When Muddy Waters died last year I went out and bought two albums reissued on French Chess: Muddy Waters^-Folk Singer and a double record set titled, Muddy Waters—The Chicago Years. I think I've played them at least once a week since then. Every time I listen to the recordings I am astounded by their perfection. Not perfection in the European classical sense of exact fingerings and perfect technique, but perfection in the human sense. Those are the most expressive recordings I have ever heard.
Muddy was born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, located in the Mississippi Delta, on April 4, 1915. He was raised by his grandmother in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He began playing harmonica at age 13, and guitar by 17. Before long he was able to supplement his income from farm work by playing "all around our little town—Saturdaynight suppers and Sunday-afternoon get-togethers, even played for white gettogethers, picnics and such.'' In 1941 he was first recorded by folk collector Alan Lomax, who was down South gathering music for the Library of Congress. In 1943 he joined the black exodus from the rural South and moved to Chicago. By the end of the decade he was a rhythm and blues star.
Muddy Waters—Folk Singer was recorded in 1963 in an effort to capitalize on the folk craze of the early '60s. The idea was to record Muddy with a small combo playing only acoustic instruments so that their music could be considered "legitimate" folk performances. Although the idea that Muddy would have to legitimize his folk status is laughable, the concept of this album works beautifully. This record, more than any other I've heard, seems to capture the rural-blues sound of the Mississippi Delta.
I have listened to, and loved, the recordings of the early bluesmen like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, but to be perfectly honest, there always seemed to be something missing, something that keeps them from reaching the transcendent qualities I've experienced from later blues recordings. Listening to Folk Singer makes it clear just how much the blues recordings of the '30s suffered from the poor recording capabilities of that era. Being able to hear every nuance of Muddy's voice on Folk Singer makes me wonder just how powerful Robert Johnson's records might have sounded if they had been recorded under better circumstances. Though there are hundreds of great blues records from the Delta, their power is almost always diluted by the crude recording techniques of the '30s. Muddy Waters was one of the Mississippi originals who lived long enough to be able to record acoustically during the modem era.
The songs on Folk Singer sound like they were cut one hot afternoon on a back porch overlooking the cottonfields. They're played with the kind of relaxed, unhurried attitude of a musician who knows he's going to fill up a whole afternoon just by playing and singing. The best blues contains the same battle of tension and release that lovemaking does. Like an expert lover, an expert bluesman knows how to take his time. On Folk Singer Muddy is all restraint, making even the slightest use of force seem like an earthshaking climax. He whispers and coos the blues, singing almost entirely to himself. The accompaniment is sparse: Buddy Guy playing single-note leads, Willie Dixon rolling the bass and Clifton James slapping the brushes on a single snare to provide the backbeat. Muddy fills the spaces in with unearthly groans and hums, accenting his vocals with stinging slideguitar work miked so closely that we can hear the metallic slither of the slide cutting across the strings. Even though these songs were recorded 20 years after Muddy left for Chicago, they are an ultimate rendering of what Muddy would call "deep blues."
Muddy Waters—The Chicago Years is a reissue of the sides that Muddy recorded for Leonard Chess from 19481964. During those years, Muddy, accompanied by Chicago blues greats like harmonica player Little Walter and guitarist Jimmy Rogers, revolutionized the sound of the blues, laying down the foundation upon which rock 'ri roll would be built. When Muddy arrived in Chicago he was playing blues in the Delta acoustic style. But he soon realized that by amplifying his guitar he could rock a big Saturday-night party, or a south-side nightclub much more easily. He added other amplified instruments, Little Walter playing hornlike lines on the harp and Jimmy Rogers playing boogie patterns on the guitar, until he arrived at the driving, cranked-up blues heard on songs like "I'm Ready" and "Walkin' Through the Park." As Muddy put it: "We went to putting time to our lowdown Mississippi blues. We put a pretty good group together because we learned beat, learned what the people's movin' off of. Even it's the blues we still had to drive behind it."
That beat is what changed Muddy's blues so profoundly. Once the band starts up it's like a steamroller, crushing everything in its path with unrelenting propulsion. And that propulsion, coupled with Muddy's perfect singing, slashing slide work and old-time Deltablues sensibilities is what makes these recordings so fabulous. "She's Alright” is a perfect example. Without the drumwork and the amplified instruments, this could easily be a classic Delta-blues performance using the old rural-blues technique of playing the slide guitar in unison with the vocal melody. But the drumming and amplification transform these Delta elements into a new type of blues sound. A sound that would come to be called "Chicago blues."
Muddy Waters is credited as a major influence by many rock performers. The Rolling Stones took their name from one of his early hits. Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have made no secret of their debt to Muddy. The Chicago blues
sound he created was so close to being rock 'h roll that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other leaves off. Muddy Waters created a sound that borrowed from the rural blues of Mississippi roots, Louis Jordan's swingstyled jump blues and the more sophisticated crooner blues of the R&B chart toppers. The raw, energetic-beat-oriented music he created constitutes the real beginnings of rock 'ri roll.
I find Muddy's blues in many ways more satisfying than the music it spawned. Early rock ri' roll is an explosion of adolescent joy, an outpouring of I-don't-give-a-shit-let's-party attitudes. But the Chicago blues, to me, feels more elemental, more basic—ultimately, more human than rock 'ri roll. It can have the same burst of release, but can also take its time and express deeper and more subtle emotions. Emotions that run so deep they seem to take on mystical powers. There's something in the way that Muddy hums a note, shouts a phrase or plays a lick on the slide guitar that connects with an unconscious part of me. He has unraveled some chromosomal link that allows him to tap directly into the listener's emotions. How else could he sing that same phrase, play that same goddamn note in every song and have it move me each time?
Thanks to Muddy, my addiction to the blues is back and once again I'm trying to attract converts. Now listen up, so I don't have to stop you on the streets and hand you a pampMet—both of these records are available as imports. If you don't live in a major city they can be hard to find. My suggestion is to write to Down Home Music, Inc., 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530. They are the biggest blues, early rock 'ri roll and folk mail-order company and most likely will have these albums in stock. If you're interested in reading more about the blues, pick up Deep Blues by Robert Palmer. He traces the development of the blues from the Delta to Chicago, using the words of the bluesmen themselves whenever possible.
When Muddy died last year there were no presidential declarations, no memorial-stamp issued, no five-minute capsule from Dan Rather on the seveno'clock news. There were just obits in the music papers and a few words on the local stations, and Muddy Waters quietly became part of the American music heritage. But luckily for us, the recordings he made are still available. Hopefully, more people will search out those records and Muddy will take his rightful place as one of the seminal figures in American popular music. □