Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life And Times Of Muddy Waters
During his first trip to England, Muddy Waters, ruminating about his humble beginnings and how far the blues had taken him in the world, told a reporter from Melody Maker, “There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues — the blues we used to have when we had no money.”
Brandishing a roll of bills, he wondered, “How can I have that kind of blues with this in my pocket?”
He could do it, he said, because he had a “long memory.”
Back home in Mississippi, Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, was a sharecropper, bootlegger, and aspiring musician schooled by the likes of Son House and Charley Patton. He was “discovered” by folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work, who recorded some of his songs for the Library of Congress and Fisk University in 1941.
Hearing his own voice and seeing his own name on a record convinced him he could make music his life’s work, so he moved to Chicago, where he electrified the blues and turned it into something, as he said, “up-to-date.” As things would turn out, one of the world’s most popular rock ‘n’ roll bands and the most popular magazine covering youth culture would take their names from one of his songs. Muddy Waters didn’t singlehandedly transform popular culture in the middle of the twentieth century, but he certainly had a hand in it.
Robert Gordon does a beautiful job telling Waters’ story — covering the details the bluesman would have been able to recount with that “long memory,” of course, but also placing them in context. Waters, he writes, was “emblematic for…not just the blues generally, but also the twentieth-century migration from a southern rural culture to a northern urban one, the evolution from acoustic music to electric music, and the acceptance of African American culture into American society.”
Gordon ranges into Waters’ often messy personal life, noting that he “went through several wives, and always had women on the side, and women on the other side, too.” Numerous children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren result, some of whom are major sources for the book, and one of whom concludes, “I will always be grateful for the things he did in my life, but as a person, he was not a very nice person.”
Mostly, though, the focus remains squarely on the music and the great musicians who found their way into Waters’ employ, and thus became stars themselves: Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Little Walter, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and others. Waters’ intense rivalry with Howlin’ Wolf is also noted, including one priceless anecdote that has the two men burning their own money in a face-off to see who will back down first.
Gordon is highly critical of Chess Records, which made Waters famous but mostly misunderstood and often abused his talent, forcing him to record trend-following embarrassments such as “The Muddy Waters Twist” and the psychedelic “Electric Mud”.
Gordon also reports that the label cheated him out of royalties, doling out money not when it was owed to him, but rather only when he asked for it. In that way, Gordon suggests, Chess was not unlike the plantation owners back in Mississippi, making sure their charges didn’t starve, on the one hand, but on the other making sure they didn’t get ahead, either. “Sharecropping — getting less than half of what you’ve got coming to you — was good training for a life in the music business,” Gordon writes.
Intriguingly, Waters was surprisingly complicit in his being taken advantage of. He was illiterate, it’s true. More importantly, he had never shaken off the subservience to his white bosses that had been ingrained in him from birth.
In all, Gordon paints a complex portrait of Waters, who, whatever his shortcomings, was undeniably every bit the Hoochie Coochie Man he declared himself to be, his mojo working overtime for the whole of his long, rich, fascinating life.