Little Walter was a sterling example of a particular American archetype: the scrappy, scrawny little guy who’s always spoiling for a fight. His cousins are guys like Billy Martin and Paul “Go Take a Flying Fuck at a Rolling Doughnut” Lazzaro in Slaughterhouse-Five: men whose belief that the world was out to get them was an unshakeable truth and the only way to survive was to be ready to kick some ass at a moment’s notice. Lazzaro didn’t have much of a fictional career as a small-time punk with a big mouth, but both Billy Martin and Little Walter managed to claw their way to the top, only to self-destruct when they got there.
Suffering horribly from the long dark nights between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training, I read a fascinating book called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, a narrative that interweaves politics, the New York City blackout, Son of Sam and the dysfunctional World Series champions, Billy Martin’s 1977 New York Yankees. While it was pretty clear from the book that Billy knew his baseball, it was also clear that he was a terribly insecure man who went out of his way to humiliate his players when they pissed him off, even (and especially) his star outfielder, Reggie Jackson. Billy would look for fights, and if he couldn’t find one, he’d create conflict by making shit up in his head so he could get his edge back. Security and comfort were alien to Billy Martin—he kept going back to Steinbrenner because humiliation and insecurity were his bosom pals. Billy Martin needed conflict and looming abasement to feel that all was right with the world.
I also read the superbly researched bio, Little Walter, Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story, by Glover, Dirks and Gaines. Little Walter was Billy Martin magnified to the nth degree. He died before he hit thirty-eight, with more scars on his face than a bantamweight stiff. It is said that he died as the result of a fight; it’s more accurate to say that he died from the cumulative effects of hundreds of fights, including one with alcoholism. Part of that fighting spirit came from a fierce individualism that manifested itself in his childhood; even his choice to play the harmonica was a big “fuck you” to all the friends and family who encouraged him to pick another instrument. He left Cajun Louisiana at the age of twelve, spending the war years as a busker and hobo, picking up tips from more seasoned harpists and trying to survive the onset of a Chicago winter by using tape to secure his thin jacket. Little Walter had to wind up on the South Side of Chicago, in part because that’s where the blues would undergo its most important transformation, but also because it was a place where violence was part of the fabric of everyday life, as described so tersely by Nick Gravenites: “I was born in Chicago, in nineteen and forty-one/Well, my father told me/Son, you better get a gun.'” Little Walter might have been the guy Willie Dixon had in mind in “I’m Ready” when he wrote, “I hope some screwball starts a fight.” You simply can’t imagine him anywhere else.
Despite all his self-inflicted troubles, Little Walter channeled that aggression in an effort to be the best harmonica player who ever blew the reeds, and I don’t know too many people who would disagree that he achieved that goal in his short lifetime. His competitive spirit also drove him to his greatest innovations: he decided to play the harmonica with a small microphone cupped in his hand because he didn’t want the guitars and the drums to drown him out. He took it a step further and drove the sound to the max through mikes and tube amps to create sounds that no one had ever heard before but that everyone after him would try to emulate. Little Walter could make a harmonica sound as clear as a cornet, as soft as a flute or as furious as a freight train. Combined with his intuitive feel for rhythm and dynamics, he became a blues powerhouse who achieved greater chart success than any other Chicago bluesman in the 1950’s. He was also one hell of a singer, not like the gruff and gritty voices of the classic blues guys, but a smoother, more melodic vocalist with belt-out power. Whether he was singing or blowing the harp, Little Walter put it all out there. This was a guy with no off-switch.
The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (technically, it should be The Checkers 50th Anniversary Collection, since he recorded for the Chess subsidiary) is a marvelous introduction to one of the great innovators and most challenging personalities in music history. You’ll hear Little Walter in all his glory, wearing all his scars with pride and defiance. The songs he chose and the songs he wrote are filled with cheating, abusive women who constantly reject and ignore him, and there’s plenty of evidence here to convict him of being an abusive, violent, card-carrying misogynist. Given my card-carrying feminism, you may wonder why I’d be attracted to Little Walter’s music. My theory is that his music and his life touch two sensitive parts of my personality: one, I have a strong preference for real over fake; and two, I always find cock-strutting men an intriguing challenge. I don’t cringe when Robert Johnson sings, “I’m gonna beat my woman ’til I get satisfied,” because he’s expressing the dark side of his personality with perfect clarity; I appreciate the emotional expressiveness without judging it or dismissing it. I also know that if he tried to do that to me, he’d be dickless in ten seconds.
Little Walter earned some measure of fame as the harp player for Muddy Waters. However, his ambition was always to lead his own band, so three years into his work with Muddy, Leonard Chess finally squeezed in some recording time for him at the beginning of a Muddy Waters session. The band did two takes of a song called “Juke,” a tune that Little Walter had modified from an earlier blues piece; the recording released on August 1952 is take one. “Juke” became a huge R&B hit, becoming the first and only harmonica instrumental to hit #1 on the Billboard R&B, where it remained for eight weeks.
When you hear “Juke” the first time, it may not knock your socks off, in large part because nearly every riff Little Walter uses here has been recycled by those who followed in his footsteps. A simple boogie-woogie swinging shuffle number in 4/4 except for two brief shifts to 3/4 and 2/4, “Juke” demonstrates Little Walter’s exceptional feel for the blues, his command of dynamics and his ability to transform the sound of the harmonica in a way no one thought possible. There are verses where the harmonica sounds like a sax; there are passages where the harp drives the rhythm more effectively than bass and drums. Little Walter was a powerful presence on Muddy Waters’ recordings, and that power comes through loud and clear on this maiden solo effort.
The harmonica in “Sad Hours” is drenched in primitive reverb, likely created by setting up a microphone to capture the sound through a loudspeaker. Since reverb has the effect of pushing the sound to the back of the mix, the remarkable feature of “Sad Hours” is how Little Walter still manages to dominate the track. “Sad Hours” is characterized by long draws and bends on the harp that reflect the aching of a lonely soul, but in the last verse, Little Walter shifts into reverse and plays a single note in short, quick dotted-eighths, building the tension to the climax. It feels like a hard cock pulling back from a deep fuck and peppering the clitoris with rapid ecstasy-triggering bursts before driving it home and releasing the full load.
Little Walter may have had his troubles with women, but I’m absolutely certain he could fuck like a pro.
“Off the Wall” is an all-out bash where Little Walter frequently shaves a teeny bit off the notes at the end of a run to create the tension. He also sprinkles in a few lighter runs that resemble the sound of a piccolo before taking off full blast. “Roller Coaster” is a version of a Bo Diddley number that became another instrumental top ten hit. This one’s more earthy and gritty, with a straightforward, hand-clapping beat perfectly designed for Little Walter to show his improvisational skills.
What’s surprising about this collection is that there are only four instrumentals. All of Little Walter’s singles featured a vocal on one side and a harmonica instrumental on the other. Some might find the neglect of the instrumentals a downside; I love Little Walter’s voice, so I’m good with it. The vocals also paint a clearer picture of the man’s uncontrollable drives and motivations.
Little Walter wrote many of his own songs, and selected others from some of the best in the business, like Willie Dixon and Big Bill Broonzy. Blues is often a self-confessional form of expression, and Little Walter’s real-life troubles are the subject of many of the songs here: even those contributed by other songwriters capture moods that seem to be part of his core personality. On his first vocal, “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,” he attributes his drinking problem to romantic rejection:
Now there ain’t but the one thing momma
That makes your daddy drink.
When you say that you don’t love me,
Well lord I begin to think.
The verse is hardly original; it’s pretty much lifted directly from Robert Johnson’s “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (“Ain’t but the one thing/Makes Mister Johnson drink/I’s worried ’bout how you treat me, baby/I begin to think.”) Lack of originality aside, what matters is that Little Walter identified with the sentiment. Like all alcoholics, he’s looking to blame his problem on someone else, and those evil-hearted women in Little Walter’s universe are always a convenient object for recrimination, abuse, whatever.
Two of his covers, Willie Dixon’s “Too Late” and Stan Lewis’ “Boom, Boom Out Goes the Lights” feature my two favorite Little Walter vocals, and both are misogynistic in the extreme. What makes them work for me is the attitude he brings to both; an honest, no-bullshit attitude of enough is enough. Whether that was wishful thinking or how he really interacted with women who crossed him is a matter of conjecture, but I love the way he feels those lyrics. In “Too Late” he says goodbye to a cheatin’, abusive woman, snapping off the “too late” with perfect end-of-discussion finality. He always makes me laugh when he delivers the stinger line, “You ain’t good looking’ and I can’t stand your cookin’—I’m gone!”
In “Boom, Boom Out Goes the Lights,” he shows a much darker side, adopting the ethos of a world where beating a woman or taking her life is a culturally acceptable option if she messes around with another man:
No kiddin’, I’m ready to fight,
I’ve been lookin’ for my baby all night
If I get her in my sight,
Boom boom! Out go the lights.
His backing band, The Jukes (originally The Aces), plays this one with an almost casual feel, as if to say, “Oh well, that’s the way the ball bounces.” It provides the ironic contrast to Little Walter’s angry vocal, punctuated with two drum shots on the words, “boom, boom.” This is literally and figuratively a killer performance that gives me the chills.
Most of the other tunes reinforce Little Walter’s world-view that because he can’t trust a woman, he’s all alone in this world and the only way to get through it is to keep fucking and fighting. In “Mean Old World,” an adaptation of a T-Bone Walker hit recorded by many others (including Eric Clapton), Walter expresses deep feelings of abandonment through both his anguished vocal and the brilliant extended vibrato on the harp. In “Tell Me Mama,” he confronts his woman by asking, “When I come in, who went out that back door?” in a voice that sounds like he’s reliving a pretty common scene. The same theme of abandonment is covered again in the classic “Blues with a Feeling,” where he makes the harmonica scream and cry with stunning effect, and in “Last Night,” a tune later covered by Paul Butterfield. Even in the apparent love nest celebration of “You’re So Fine,” he inserts the discordant line, “Goin’ crazy ’cause you love somebody else.” Love, jealousy and frustration were all the same experience in Little Walter’s universe, but what’s amazing is that all these performances are unusually compelling, even if the message rarely changes.
The one song that is an exception to the rule is “My Babe,” written especially for him by Willie Dixon. Here the woman is a source of endless satisfaction who also keeps him in line, as any good woman should. What he receives in addition to her strength and self-confidence are the gifts of trust, love and affection:
My baby don’t stand no cheatin’, my babe
Oh yeah she don’t stand no cheatin’, my babe
Oh yeah she don’t stand no cheatin’,
She don’t stand none of that midnight creepin’
My babe, true little baby, my babe
My babe, I know she love me, my babe
Oh yes, I know she love me, my babe
Oh yes, I know she love me,
She don’t do nothin’ but kiss and hug me
My babe, true little baby, my babe
Little Walter’s vocal on this song is seriously hot, sophisticated and not a little bit boastful. It’s as if he’s allowed himself to dream of his perfect world, and for a few moments he finds that world through music.
There’s not a stinker track on this record, one that holds as much fascination for me as The Best of Muddy Waters. My only regret is that Little Walter did not live to a ripe old age so he could have witnessed the extent of his enormous influence on blues, rock and R&B. I hate to say it, but I don’t regret the life he lived, because I think if you removed the aggressive side of his personality, you would have also removed the drive that made him the best harp player of his time. That’s a very selfish sentiment, and I don’t mean to make light of the circumstances of life as a black man in the America of the 1940’s and 50’s. Little Walter was dealt a shitty hand, and given the odds against him, he had to fight to become the best. It’s just sad he had to become a martyr for the cause.
As my readers know, my usual practice is to listen to an album three times without distraction before I touch the keyboard. I have to confess that I have not followed that practice with The Best of Muddy Waters, but I’m still going ahead with my review. Before you accuse me of violating my sacred oath as a music critic who has repeatedly differentiated herself from the pack of lazy, insufferable, assembly-line losers who dominate music criticism today, allow me to explain.
I have been listening to nothing but The Best of Muddy Waters for four days straight. I listened to no other music during that period, though I will admit that I was distracted during some of those plays. Here is the full analysis:
|Activity||# Times Played||# Times Listening While Otherwise Distracted||(B-C) = Total Valid Listening Experiences|
|Making myself look beautiful in the morning (2 hours)||3||2||1|
|Walk/Metro to Work (40 minutes)||1||0||1|
|Decompressing from conversations with assholes from the States during working hours||2||0||2|
|Walk/Metro to apartment (40 minutes)||1||0||1|
|Getting ready to go out to dinner (90 minutes)||2||2||0|
|Dinner (90 minutes)||0||0||0|
|Fucking, two days, two hours per fuck||(6/4) = 1.5||1.5||0|
|Last cigarette, winding down (45 minutes)||1||0||1|
I think listening to the album intently twenty-four times qualifies me to write this review, and I would further argue that listening to this intensely erotic album during sex validates my status as an MWCP (Muddy Waters Certified Practitioner).
After four days, I’m still not tired of it. I’m looking forward to writing the review because I always listen to the music while I write. I can’t wait to hear this album again! I’m in the exact same space inhabited by two young Englishmen fifty-two years ago, as described by Ted Gioia in Delta Blues:
When Keith Richards ran into his childhood pal Mick Jagger on a train in 1961— another one of those legendary encounters discussed above— he was struck forcibly by the Muddy Waters album in his friend’s possession, and they spent most of the rest of that day listening to it in silent rapture.
There are many reasons why The Best of Muddy Waters is so addicting. While Muddy Waters would never rate as a guitar virtuoso in the same vein as histrionic stylists like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, I can’t think of many guitarists whose sound possesses (in Gioia’s words) “tremendous vitality . . . he could drive a performance single-handedly.” Muddy’s vocal range is equally limited, but he has one of the most expressive and attention-commanding voices I’ve ever heard. Like Miles Davis, he wasn’t afraid to surround himself with the best musicians in the business, and if you’ve got Little Walter on harmonica, you’ve got the best harp player who ever breathed. The songs themselves are stunningly direct expressions of deep desires and emotions without any intervening bullshit. But more than anything else, Muddy Waters and crew played like they meant it—the music has an authenticity that is becoming increasingly rare in our auto-tuned and patched recording universe. While there are more extensive collections for connoisseurs, The Best of Muddy Waters is not only a solid representation of Muddy Waters’ best work but a fabulous introduction to Chicago blues (and to blues in general).
“I Just Want to Make Love to You”: This song has been covered by music practitioners and pretenders all across the spectrum: Adele (yecch!), Mungo Jerry (wow!), The Righteous Brothers (you’re kidding!), The Stones and, most famously, Foghat. None of these versions come close to capturing the true feel of the song. Written by Willie Dixon, one of the great songwriters of all-time and one of the horniest sons of bitches who ever sported an erection, this song is unique in the annals of romantic overtures because of its absolute commitment to real man-and-woman sex where both parties are equals and cultural roles don’t fucking matter.
I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep our home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you
There’s no game playing here and none of the silly, cutesy-wootsy courting rituals classically associated with seduction. The man doesn’t demand fidelity (“I don’t want you to be true”) and he doesn’t use the woman because he’s on the rebound or because he’s had a bad day (“I don’t want you ’cause I’m sad and blue”). Unlike most guys, he’s not trying to prove what a stud he is, bragging about his alleged prowess. The message is, “Let’s fuck, baby!” sung in a tone of pure, uncontaminated desire. I’ve had a lot of guys mouth the message, only to find out when the prick hits the pussy that they’re self-conscious poseurs. Muddy’s approach is pristine, sublime lust, and you just know he’s going to deliver the goods. The supporting players are simply outstanding right from the get-go, with Otis Spann’s piano forming a call-and-response with Little Walter on the harmonica over the throbbing bass of Willie Dixon, the rhythm guitar of Jimmy Rogers and the subtle drumming of Fred Below. When Little Walter hits his solo, he begins with a long blast on the harp that sounds like he’s holding that first deep thrust for a few seconds before he makes his moves. Adele? She can go fuck herself. This is the real deal. Cigarette!
“Long Distance Call”: I melt at the introduction to this song, a little duet with Muddy and Little Walter that intertwines elegance and soul. I don’t think Muddy hits a single note on the scale; it’s all sweet blue notes and bent chords that simmer with emotion. The interplay between harp and guitar continues throughout the song, with neither party taking the lead but both giving each other plenty of room to maneuver. If you want to hear what it’s like when two musicians are on the same wavelength, this is it.
“Louisiana Blues”: Opening with an equally fabulous guitar-harp duet, this number captures more of the Delta feel than your typical Chicago blues number. One of Muddy’s compositions, he sings here about unnamed troubles that are pushing him to New Orleans to “get me a mojo hand” (a hoodoo amulet containing a spell or prayer to ward off the troubles). While he’s in The Big Easy he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity and get himself a little poontang: “I’m ‘gon show all you good lookin’ women/Yes, how to treat your love.” When Muddy calls out, “Let’s get back to New Orleans, boys,” the instrumental passage that follows calls up an image of a rickety porch where the farmhands are relaxing with some music after a long, grueling week in the fields. Muddy was the key link between the Delta blues and the Chicago blues, and “Louisiana Blues” is a good example of how that played out. Once again, the interaction between Muddy and Little Walter is simply breathtaking. Damn, I love it when musicians really connect!
“Honey Bee”: Ted Gioia notes that “Eric Clapton studied Waters’s recordings, and felt that a major breakthrough in his guitar playing came when he could imitate part of the bluesman’s ‘Honey Bee.'” Muddy is a difficult guitarist to emulate, in part because blue notes are challenging all by themselves, and in part because of his unusual attack: playing mostly single notes using open tuning with a slide on his pinky finger. To further complicate matters, his fills are often achieved with a Delta finger-picking style rather than a guitar pick. He was also blessed with unusual dexterity that enabled him to snap off notes with precision. Now, take all of that and add his intuitive-emotional feel for the blues and it’s no wonder Clapton must have felt his entire soul light up when he managed to copy a small passage from “Honey Bee.” The buzzing on single notes and the vibrato pièce de resistance are absolutely stunning displays of guitar magic. Since I couldn’t emulate Muddy in my wildest dreams, my attention tends to turn to the lyrics, where once again he sings of sexual mores that defy the rules of the game:
I hear a lotta buzzing, sound like my little honey bee
She been all around the world making honey
But now she is coming back home to me
While most male songwriters of the era (and beyond) would have implied (because of censorship) that women like Honey Bee are trampy, no-good sluts, Muddy doesn’t say a word about revenge or putting her in her place for spreading her sweet nectar all over the world. He accepts that she had to sow her oats, too. “I don’t mind you sailing, but please don’t sail so long,” is an honest expression of his desire to be with her and an astonishingly generous and forgiving remark.
“Rollin’ Stone”: The real source of the band’s name, this is a traditional number that Muddy made his own with a few lyrical additions and his inimitable style. “Rollin’ Stone” was Muddy’s first Chess record, and the hiss on the track gives it a delicious time machine feel. The track features only Muddy and his guitar, and that simplicity reveals the strong core of his musical personality. Man, this fucker had power and presence! Throughout most of the song he stays firmly planted in the key of E, but both his guitar and vocal explore the entire scale rather than sticking to the notes dictated by the chord. This is the essence of the modal approach that I’ve talked about in my jazz reviews, so if you’re uncomfortable with all that music theory gibberish and you want to understand what I mean by “modal,” just listen to this song and how Muddy uses most of the notes between the root and the top of the scale. Back to our story . . . the absence of drums and bass is a huge plus in this piece, because it allows Muddy to play the song the way it feels rather than have his emotions forced into measures. Sometimes his notes and chords are suspended in defiance of the march of time, and those are beautiful moments.
“Rollin’ Stone” is a song about allowing one’s sexual drive to serve in place of traditional ambition:
Well, I wish, I was a catfish
Swimmin’ in a oh, deep blue sea
I would have all you good lookin’ women
Fishin’, fishin’ after me
Sure ‘nough, after me
Muddy is now in the Honey Bee role, wandering down the road, stopping to satisfy a married woman before letting his libido carry him to the next liaison. One of Muddy’s themes is that his essence was foreshadowed prior to birth by gypsies and old women; here he winds up a “rollin’ stone,” and like Honey Bee, he’s going to share his love with the world. The predestination in this case has nothing do with being trapped as in a caste system, instead the message is “there’s a part of me that just is what it is, like it or not.”
“I’m Ready”: I believe that the entire sorry history of the human race revolves around two words: male testosterone. When male testosterone levels rise to the point where they overtake logic and reason, men respond in two ways: they make love or they make war. I firmly believe that if Ms. Stick-Up-Her-Ass Condi Rice had crawled under the cabinet table and given Bush, Cheney and the boys blow jobs, there never would have been wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She probably would have blown all the fuses in Dick Cheney’s bionic heart, and today he’d be remembered as a man who gave his life for peace instead of one of the biggest assholes in American history.
Willie Dixon understood this, and he wrote about it in “I’m Ready.” Muddy’s testosterone levels are off the charts as he struts around like a cock (rooster) in this number. He knows his existential choices are sex or violence:
I got an axe handle pistol on a graveyard frame
That shoot tombstone bullets, wearin’ balls and chain
I’m drinkin’ TNT, I’m smokin’ dynamite
I hope some screwball start a fight
‘Cause I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me
All you pretty little chicks with your curly hair
I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere
But stop what your doin’ baby come over here
I’ll prove to you baby, that I ain’t no square
Because I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
Now I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me
When Muddy sings “I hope some screwball start a fight,” he nails the essence of a man whose hormones are boiling and he’s got to either kick some ass or get some ass. The crucial line for me is when Muddy sings to the pretty little chicks, “I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere,” a very perceptive line. I know very few women who are dumb enough to be attracted to male swagger; most of us think it’s cute, a term that encompasses the underlying meanings of “laughable” and “Come back when you grow up, sonny boy.” We know that guys with that attitude will lose it in about thirty seconds; the stance is pure bluff. When that same man chooses to kick some ass, he becomes even more of a pathetic joke. Give it up, guys! You’ll be much more content in a social structure based on female domination!
The music is smoky-bar-perfect, a sexy swing with a groove that makes you smile. When Little Walter takes center stage, I imagine him playing a harmonica that’s six feet long, because there’s no way you can get a sound that big out of such a compact instrument. Jimmy Rogers does some very nifty work on second guitar as Muddy puts most of his testosterone into the vocal.
“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”: A hoochie coochie man is one with a track record with the ladies, and Willie Dixon reveals the secret behind studliness in this classic number. Before the pharma companies hooked men into buying Viagra, there were good old-fashioned hoodoo remedies like a black cat bone and a mojo and herbal remedies like “Johnny Concheroo,” a root. Most guys don’t advertise the fact they may be using Viagra, so it’s really generous for Willie to let the guys in on the secret! The classic stop-time blues structure is perfect for an expressive singer like Muddy, and the drama it creates really adds fire to the piece.
“She Moves Me”: Muddy falls under the spell of an aggressive, dominating woman who gets drunk, calls him a dumbbell and tells him he’s a square, but to him she’s pure magic. I love the way he can’t explain her power, because if power can be explained, it isn’t very powerful, is it? The refrain, “She moves me man, honey and I don’t see how it’s done” is a sublime expression of how a great woman can melt a man’s heart and stiffen his penis by taking detours around his logical brain. His opening lick of very blue notes is played almost submissively; he’s past the bravado of “I’m Ready” and is ready to serve! My kind of man!
“I Want You to Love Me”: Opening like a slow tempo version of The Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man,” this is one of my favorite expressions of the philosophy of true love: it’s not about manipulation, playing games and trying to entrap someone, it’s about choosing: “I want you to love me, baby/Love with your own free will.” It’s also about giving it all and not holding back because of insecurity or self-consciousness, “I want you to love me baby/’Til I drop dead from your love.” I’m cool with that, as long as you’re on the bottom, dude! Backup harp player Walter “Shakey” Horton does a damn fine job on this track.
“Standin’ Around Cryin'”: This is another call-and-response with Little Walter, who uses that harp to express the inexpressible emotion that the lyrics can’t possibly capture: those deep feelings that hit you in the gut and make you feel a bit dizzy, as if the world around you has shifted in a heartbeat. This and “Still a Fool” are the bluesiest numbers on the album, in the down sense of the word.
“Still a Fool”: Definitely more Delta than Chicago despite the electric guitar, there’s a point where I think Robert Johnson’s ghost has slipped into Muddy’s body. What makes it Delta is the tendency to use the root chord to explore the mode and the imagery of trains and crossroads. Muddy gives one of his most intense vocals on the album, as if he’s in a deep trance as he feels his way through his troubles and the image of the long, tall, willowy and unfortunately married woman at the source. A bravado performance.
“I Can’t Be Satisfied”: This is the most primitive recording of the lot, originally a song that was part of the Library of Congress recordings made when Muddy was first discovered in the Delta. I’m in total agreement with Ted Gioia’s description of this song as a pivotal moment in blues:
And if his previous country blues had looked back to Son House and Robert Johnson, this passionate performance anticipates the future of the blues, with its sassier, more independent attitudes, its celebration of raw appetite, not softened by metaphor or coy allusions as in so many earlier blues songs, but presented with unprecedented starkness. Even Muddy’s own later move to Chicago is hinted at in its opening phrases. “Well, if I feel tomorrow like I feel today/I’m gonna pack my suitcase/And make my getaway . . . This is no lament over bein’ mistreated, but something far more carnal in its origins. “I never been satisfied,” Waters proclaims, his bottleneck drawing out wavering moans from the guitar behind his vocal.
His riffs also communicate that sense of restless confidence, as he moves over a large piece of the fretboard with sprightliness. He leaves the melody for spoken voice on the “I could never be satisfied” lines, a technique that was very common with the Delta crowd and makes it feel like you’re sitting right there on the porch with the guy. It’s a toe-tappin’, head-shakin’ kick, just Muddy and the guitar, and a blessed artifact of musical history.
When I start listening to blues this intently, it usually means that I’ve entered my annual blues jag. I don’t think that’s going to happen, for the mood that sparks that jag is contemplative and introverted, and I’m not feeling that way at all. In fact, I’m feeling pretty sprightly these days! I think that what drove me to Muddy Waters was a deep yearning for authenticity, for the sound of musicians making a full commitment to the art and for a few moments of genuine human communication in a world that’s drowning in bullshit. The fact that Muddy is one of the great erotic artists in any genre made the experience that much sweeter.
I think I’ll play it just one more time.