May 1, 2003

Muddy Waters

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It is accurate to say that Muddy Waters, who died 20 years ago yesterday, bridged the gap between Delta Blues and Rock with his electric Chicago style, but the statement tells you nothing. It is more truthful to say that Muddy played music which grabbed you by the brain and guts and the heart and pulled you into his world until your fortunes rose and fell with his. Muddy never finished a song; with every performance and recording, he reinvented it. Below are the best versions of some of his greatest songs.

I Just Want to Make Love to You (Chess, 1954) — Takes the classic and adds a bit of Bo Diddley’s trademark syncopated guitar and drums. The ultimate swagger song reveals a hint of desperateness when Muddy moans: “I don’t want you/ to be true,” he means it just as much as the title. And that harmonica follows the guitar lines better than it has any right to, allowing the song to build tension even as it keeps its slow, sweaty, inexorable pace.

40 Days and 40 Nights (Chess, 1956)– The harp almost acts like a drone, keeping the downpour constant. Muddy’s voice rings like a prophet’s, you can’t tell if he’s bemoaning the rain or calling it down with his broken heart. This may be his most focused song, it’s all centered on one emotion, that missing soul so deep there’s not room for any other emotion but the wanting.

Got My Mojo Working (At Newport, 1987) — Muddy leaves Chicago and takes a trip back home to the Delta, bringing bar room piano, killer harp and pinpoint slide guitar with him. For a song about not getting the one person you want, it sounds oddly like a party. It needs to be played live so you can testify that Muddy does indeed have his mojo working on you. And everyone else.

Rolling Stone (London Sessions, 1963) — The initial lick owes a lot to “Still a Fool,” but the tone is totally different. It’s acoustic, with the slide only occasionally emerging from the bedrock of constant strumming and fading back in. There’s something very ancient at work here, the song is so stripped, so basic, that it seems to exist separate from time, in its own place, where it’s always now, and that stone is always rolling towards you.

Still A Fool (Muddy & The Wolf 1967) — The leitmotif, half way between a lick and a riff, can be described as nothing short of stinging. It lashes against the sparseness of the arrangement: just Muddy’s voice, rhythm guitar and the electric, like a slap laid over it. The last minute discloses the meaning behind the song’s title and is perfectly expressed by the lyrics in a way uniquely suited to the blues. Every phrase reveals more of the story, and sends it in a different direction, until lyrical repetition isn’t repetition at all, but a revelation of the cruel joke of the situation: “I’ve been crazy/ yes I’ve been a fool/ I’ve been crazy all my life.” The way he sings ‘all’ gives you, in the space of a note, every long year of loneliness and pain. “Well I fell in love/ with a/ with another man’s wife.” His voice on ‘fell’ can only be described as a cry, containing, somehow, the initial rush of love, and its ultimate betrayal.

Mannish Boy (Sweet Home Chicago, 1977) — The ur-blues riff, if you will. Or the first born child of blues Muddy predicted, named Rock ‘n Roll. How fitting then, for the best version of it to be performed by Muddy and his self-proclaimed disciples: The Rolling Stones. The initial recording of this song has always dissatisfied me, it’s too thin, thgrefythm section is too shrill. The shrieking girls are just wrong. Other, later versions are better, but nothing can touch this one for pure power and sex. For one thing, it boasts the single best rhythm section in the entire history of the world. After the long intro, consisting of nothing more than a guitar being tuned and Muddy telling us that “everything gonna be all right this morning,” they go on to prove it as Watts and Wyman lock in and layout a backbeat so heavy, so tight, that the song has no choice but to be nailed into place. Instead of eliding the riff, every note is played until the song pulses with it and the listener barely notices it, and when it’s finally taken up by Richards’s screaming guitar it’s like we’re hearing it again for the first time. The singing, is, of course, nothing short of masterful. Muddy and Jagger alternately purr, growl, roar, and stutter their way to greatness, occasionally blending for unbelievable harmony. And for all the power, there’s so much nuance and craftsmanship. You can hear Muddy smile when he sings “I’m a hootchie cootchie man, baby.” There’s Richards’s subtle, sonic, acknowledgement when Waters says he’s a rolling stone. Jagger uses his lower register to great effect and Muddy adopts his prot