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“Toward Clearing the Air on Muddy Waters”

*“He taught us all how to play” 

– Eric Clapton

Part of why I decided to write this post has to do with what I see as a sort of “museum exhibit” phenomenon surrounding the musical genre of Delta Blues. It’s like something that people see, generally appreciate, but can only stare at wide-eyed, as if unable to truly internalize it or embrace it to the extent that they feel on level with it. 

Typically it’s through cinema, I think, that Americans truly connect with music. By nature, we’re visual learners, and seem to sometimes enter this bizarre state of the conscious’ cessation when we’re really moved by music. It’s like it’s inapplicable to our paradigm of reality and it only again becomes real when rendered within some development of film or visual representation. 

Along these lines, then, another wrinkle I’m trying to iron out here is the stereotype of Muddy Waters that he was an old, festering, uncreative man whose every song was just like “I’m a Man.” “I’m a Man” is the selection chosen for his installment of The Last Waltz, which is the video documentary and performance of The Band on which just about every song featured a different performing artist helping The Band through a song of their own. An example would be Neil Young and his appearance for him and The Band to in tandem run through “Helpless,” a song written by Young prior. 

Now, “I’m a Man” was actually written by Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters’ ostensible Delta Blues cohort, but Waters made frequent use of it in recording sessions and did a version that ended up on what I personally consider Waters’ defining work, His Best: 1947-1955. And if you think it’s banal to choose a best-of compilation as an artist’s prime document, we can at least rejoice in the fact that unlike that appalling Robert Johnson album, we don’t have to sit there and listen to two consecutive versions of the same song over and over, with Muddy Waters. 

Well, for whatever reason, the person in charge of curating The Last Waltz chose “I’m a Man” as the featured Muddy Waters tune they’d do, and on account of this, I think, Muddy Waters has taken on a bad rap over the years. Actually, I think both Dionne Farris in the form of an album skit and the show Family Guy have at some point made fun of the repetitive nature of that song. Truth be told, although it has never been my favorite Muddy Waters tune (said epithet typically toggles between “Louisiana Blues” and “I Feel Like Going Home”), I think by and large “I’m a Man” WORKED in the context of that His Best: 1947-1955 disc that I used to spin the bloody He** out of in college. One of the reasons for this is that it’s set at a slightly higher beats per minute and so doesn’t incur such awkward pauses as the version on The Last Waltz. The other is that His Best: 1947-1955 is specifically manifest as a document in BLUES, not rock and roll or rockabilly as The Last Waltz otherwise proffers. So the hexatonic scale and the repeated administration of the same theme seem like a pedagogical indulgence in genre and not as some monkey show, which, again, unfortunately and unfairly to Waters, the cinematic take of “I’m a Man” suggests.

Now, I’m going to sit here and tell you that Muddy Waters is the best guitarist of all time and luckily for me I have a fairly trusty source backing me up on this, which I list above, a source which for his part I probably rank around third or so. And I could sit here and tell you to listen to “I Feel Like Going Home” and behold those perfect, showroom-ready bends he enacts on just about every note of that guitar solo. But it’s not cinematic. Rock and roll has Detroit Rock City; hip-hop has 8 Mile. I’m not sure but I’m sure there’s some movie about jazz that glorifies it and gives it an aesthetic “image.” Mississippi will never be a “cool” place. Let’s face it. Delta Blues has no grounding in our visible framework as a culture. It’s music lover’s music. It’s music for people who are sick of or hate movies, anyway, like me. It’s music for sitting there and smoking weed to after you get out of the drunk tank, which I know I did one time I recall in college. 

Plus, the first six songs on His Best: 1947-1955 are almost cinematic to me for their sheer artistic singularity and synergy within both the blues and the classic rock canons. It’s especially impossible to perceive of a blues-minded artist not influenced by the axe-slinger from Mississippi. He’s extolled within the industry as a pioneer and the benchmark in guitar playing and yet so low has our awareness of this icon ebbed that I can’t even find a tracklist of the album online anywhere, other than Spotify’s interface, which true to form is loaded with flaws (they actually list the culminating year as 1956 instead of 1955, for instance). Well, under the tenuous guidance of Spotify I’ll name the opener as “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” a great blues song with a guitar sound that’s clear, strong and “tangy,” for lack of a better word, on what I believe to have been the Gibson Les Paul gold top mentioned in the article “What Guitars Did Muddy Waters Play?” on the website American Blues Scene. Again, Waters ups the ante on “I Feel Like Going Home” with a near perfect guitar solo, while picking a best guitar solo of all time is a pretty hard thing to do, I’d say. “Train Fare Blues” features the heartbreaking lines “It seems so sad / I wonder just how can it be? / Well everybody seems welcome / In this whole place but me”. “Blues” is a music of sadness, melancholy and mourning and for this reason, this line acts as a founding bastion for an entire genre of music, in a sense. His version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” then scoots along at a brisker pace, with the attention-grabbing lines “Well if the river was whiskey / I would be diving down”, which you’ve gotta admit absorbs a certain cinematic quality in and of itself, even if this zeitgeist of music lacks a ready movie format or plot. It’s music that’s sovereign aurally, though, coming to a beautiful ultimacy on “Louisiana Blues” and its easy, pliable blues discourse including the lines “I’m going to Louisiana / Baby behind the sun / You know I just found out / My troubles just begun” (sic). “Louisiana Blues” is a song that’s of the utmost sadness and melancholy but still, it’s never ham-handed or forced: instead, it comes across as light, rhythmic and supremely listenable, plus being rife with balanced instrumentation via the harmonica runs. Just, again, it’s entrenched within a genre of music that, it seems, has had the handicap of not in any way being glamorized or represented appropriately in Hollywood, and in this way is definitive of a genre that has come nowhere close to getting the credit it deserves.  

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