Mannish boy

The irrepressible sounds and legacy of Muddy Waters.

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Muddy Waters didn’t invent the blues but he certainly defined one of its many tributaries, first nailing down a definitive brand of the Mississippi Delta style before taking it north and into an electric, revolutionary phase.

The blues are so settled now and, despite the music’s continual emotional impact, so familiar a ritual that it may be hard to grasp that there was a time when it all sounded fresh and ground was being broken. Hard, that is, until you listen to Muddy’s early sides, the ones from the mid-’40s to the mid-’50s, because after all these years of guitar bombardments, thundering, squealing and skronking, you can still hear the immediacy, the playfulness and woefulness of those early amped phrases, simple and direct and untarnished by age. And that’s just the guitar playing.

Robert Gordon’s biography tells two stories, one being the life of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, the other being about the rise and spreading of the blues during the 20th century. Naturally the first story is where all the detail is to be found, while the second is mostly implicit in the telling of Muddy’s progress. All musical genres have a life consisting of a birth and a development and, if not a death, then a sort of afterlife of repertoire and interpretation. That such a complicated and collaborative human endeavor always takes the same route suggests that it might be something in our genes. In any event, it’s a large-scale parallel to the basic cognitive progress from the thought to the act to the contemplation of the result.

Muddy, born in 1913, was around when the blues was still in its intuitive phase, when influences could be gathered into an original concoction that made sense to its creator. He was still around when it had become a completed project and its lifeblood was the forceful personalities of its many practitioners, both the acolytes and the surviving elders.

As for Muddy’s personal story, it pivots around three key moments of being discovered. The first discovery came in August 1941, when musical anthropologist Alan Lomax, collecting indigenous folk music for the Library of Congress, was led to Muddy at his home on the Stoval plantation. The story, as told by Gordon, has a comic tinge — Muddy, not unreasonably, figured that this white guy from out of nowhere must be the taxman — along with a tall-tale aspect, as when a European explorer descends into the valley of some hidden-from-the-world tribe. But the confrontation was successful and Lomax got Muddy on record and into history. An audience larger than the appreciative locals would come later.

The second discovery of Muddy came in 1947, four years after he had moved to Chicago, plugged in and started building his rep. The Muddy that Lomax had recorded was pure Delta and essentially rural, an amalgam of Son House, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, among others, capable of an aggressive party sound but with a plaintive acoustic heart. In Chicago, Muddy’s music developed a big-city edge and, with guitarist Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter on harmonica, he had a group that sat at the apex of the new urban blues. So fresh was this new thing that Muddy’s second discoverer, Leonard Chess, balked at first, wanting a more trad sound, but he came around and Muddy the hitmaker was born.

The sides that Muddy recorded for Chess records between 1947 and 1955 are his core achievement, the unalloyed electric blues that would inspire a generation of rock musicians starting in the early ’60s. Then came Muddy’s third instance of discovery, when he was embraced by a white audience, though it was initially through white proxies, most famously the Rolling Stones, who took their group name from a Muddy song.

Some would (still) argue that the blues is no longer authentic once it’s gone from black to white. This may seem unenlightened, but considerations of race in music are not entirely fatuous (though they can be mischievous). This is especially true if you realize that race doesn’t mean that some mystical hoodoo is going to be transmitted through the blood, but rather that one is going to have a certain experience. There’s a difference between quitting life on a plantation farm and dropping out of the London School of Economics (as the Stones’ Mick Jagger did). An essential result of that difference is the way you’re going to look at the world and the way it’s going to look at you. This is bound to influence your mode of expression.

Compare Muddy’s version of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” with the Stones rendition; the former is both seductive and menacing, encompassing the mood shifts of a sexy come-on, while the latter is mainly agitated and seemingly unaware of the power play going on in the song — and God knows I love the Stones. Muddy sounds genuine; the Stones sound like young punks on the make. Of course, all the white blues guys would get better at it as time went by.

Gordon has done an impressive job in telling Muddy’s story in detail, especially considering that the bluesman was illiterate and left behind no written legacy — no letters, no tour diaries, no attempted memoirs. To marshal the details of Muddy’s many gigs and many women (a chart would have helped at this point), Gordon uses a straightforward reporting style. But when writing about the music or the blues or the lure of the Delta in general, he slips into a kind of pseudo-poetic mode as though momentarily intoxicated. When Muddy’s grandmother, Della, gives him his nickname, Gordon writes: “She put the danger and dankness and mystery of life of those shallow brumal fluids into a name the boy would carry through his life. She renamed him Muddy, as if by reclaiming the Mississippi’s cruel and divine identity for this child she would somehow neuter its power.” Which is a little rich, but effective all the same.

Gordon has also crammed a lot of interesting anecdotes into his endnotes (about a hundred pages worth), as well adding an excellent annotated discography. Muddy emerges from all this as part nice guy and part moody sonovabitch, somebody you might want to hang with but definitely not marry. And an unpretentious genius, of course — an American original.

E-mail Richard C. Walls at [email protected].

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