A Century of Champagne & Reefer
SON HOUSE: I learnt the hard way what the B-L-U-E-S MEAN. Blues we call it. Some people you got, you got the foot blues, you got the rabbit blues, it’s all KINDA blues, you let the PEOPLE tell it. Aint no such thing but one kind. One kind. That consisted between male and female. And that’s what the kinda’ love come to. Ain’t talking’ bout the love of God now. Don’t mess him up with it… Just a different kind of love. Then that bring about this thing called BLUES. That’s when you been deceived by your fellow man, I mean by your love one, that you THOUGHT that you love… You come up DECEIVED by the very one you put all your trust in. I didn’t think you would do me like this. That’s the kind of love that I’m talking’ about. Boy that’ll really hurt too sometime. O some guys go out and cut they own throat, jump in the rivers and anything else.
Since it’s Muddy Waters’ 100th birthday this month of April, and the 30th anniversary of his death, we’re taking time out to honor and remember him here at the journal.
Muddy Waters got his name from his grandmother because he loved playing in dirty creek water as a child. He is one of perhaps 20 people who can be more or less described as “the inventors of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Here is the vivid, minimalist, remarkable (and retrospectively racist) portrait of Muddy Waters that appears in Alan Lomax’s notes:
McKinley Morganfield (nicknamed Muddy Waters), a shy, handsome young Negro lives and works on a huge cotton plantation near the Mississippi river, not far from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Saturday evenings he makes a few dollars by playing for the local dances and parties of his negro neIghbors. He learned to play the guitar only three years ago, learning painfully, finger by finger, from a friend. Since that time he has learned a great deal more by listening to commercial records of blues guitarists from other parts of the country. His style is largely derived from the records of Robert Johnson, who recorded for the Columbia Phonograph Company in the 1930’s. Robert Johnson grew up only a few miles away, but Muddy Waters never saw him face to face.
Muddy Waters’ blues represent what might be called an American equivalent of the flamenco style-a complex, subtle, controlled interweaving of melodic line against an intricate and varied guitar accompaniment. He plays with a broken bottle neck on the little finger of his left hand (again, an American adaptation of the so-called Hawaiian style), sometimes using the first three fingers of his left hand to fret his instrument, sometimes using the bottleneck.
Both of these blues talk about trouble between man and woman, both are songs expressive of the anxiety, frustration and lack of security that seem to typify the relations of Negro couples. Muddy Waters told me that he composed “I Be’s Troubled” while he was changin” a tire.
Now let’s strip the racist assumptions out of this last paragraph and just reiterate that here for a minute:
These blues talk about trouble between man and woman, they are songs expressive of the anxiety, frustration and lack of security that seem to typify the relations of [poor working] couples [in a time when the working class has become obsolete]. Muddy Waters told me that he composed “I Be’s Troubled” while he was changin’ a tire.
There are these photos of Alan Lomax sitting, flanked by his crew, their backs to the camera. And all their machinery is pointed at this guy with a banjo, sitting out beyond the threshold of his clapboard, dirt-floor, shotgun shack. His wife–or whoever–sits next to him, with upturned pigtails, loose-necked & beaky like the Pythia on her wooden stool, taking in the initiates. The guy is wearing a fedora with a fat satin band. His hand is a blur.
This is late in the game–by the time this photograph is taken Mr. Lomax has been in the South collecting songs for the Library of Congress for almost 40 years. It is near the end of the period that he was being pursued by the FBI. They’ve been dogging his footsteps for 30 years for no particular reason aside from the fact that he’s spent most of his life with poor working folk–voluntarily.
Here he sits on a porch with Fred McDowell, in 1958. This would be 20 years after he met Muddy Waters.
Alan Lomax: I wonder if you’d tell me, if you can remember, ah when it was that you made that blues, Muddy Waters?
Muddy Waters: I made that Blues up in ’38.
Alan Lomax: Remember the time, the year, the..?
Muddy Waters: I made it up ’bout the 8th of October in ’38.
Alan Lomax: Do you remember where you were when you were doin’ your singin’? No, I mean, how it happened? No, I mean, where you were sittin’, what you were thinkin’ about?
Muddy Waters: Thinkin’ a perchin’ on my car. And I’d been mistreated by a girl and it just looked like it run in my mind to sing that song.
Alan Lomax: Tell me the, tell me a little of the story of it, if you don’t mind? I mean if it’s not too personal, I mean I wanna know the facts on how you felt and why you felt the way you did, that’s a very beautiful song.
Muddy Waters: Well, I just felt blue, an’ the song came into my mind an’ come to me just like that song and I start to singin’ an’ went on.
Lomax shows up South of the Mason Dixon line after the Great Depression has worn down the already worn-down South for ten years and just as the 2nd Great Migration is getting underway. As millions and then tens of millions move north or spill centrifigually into big cities in search of factory jobs, he gathers up their songs to be archived at the Library of Congress.
The South lost the Civil War but then kept on losing. Instead of ushering in a new and humane economic equilibrium, the historical moment in which slavery was abolished coincides with the moment in which the replacement of all human labor–be it black or white–by machinery accelerated into a kind of apotheosis. Instead of negotiating new kinds of cooperation and equality between black labor and white labor, the workforce and the worker–the human body itself, irregardless of race–became a kind of obsolete equipment and was abandoned as so much dead-weight, the jettisoned scrap that had been bogging down the inventory. And the control of all surplus-value and liquid commodities had just shifted to the North. So it began as a trickle, accelerated between 1910 and 1930, and then broke like floodgates again in 1940. Everyone was leaving.
The racist nostalgia for antebellum South so prominent in the American right-wing’s pop-culture is, of course, partly a nostalgia for slavery and for the kind of omnipotent control that wounded narcissists often crave. Poor white unemployed people have traditionally needed someone to look down on, be it the African American, the homosexual or the liberal, and there is a collective longing to return to a time when that desire for static, permanent superiority by birthright was an acceptable sentiment to uphold and affirm.
But this kind of nostalgia–“the South will rise again” type rhetoric–is also, I think, on some deeper level, an unconscious but deep-seated longing of the economically redundant, poor, formerly agrarian white working class.
They’re longing for a time in which the human body maintained an agency and productive potential that could still compete with the ever evolving industrial ecology of machinery that would eventually overtake it.
While (obviously) there was no equivalent nostalgia on the part African Americans for the lost Antebellum Eden of the slave-states, the Blues is still most definitely the music of a people having trouble trying to find employment for themselves.
So in a way, these songs are like the longing of a ghost for its body.
A new class of consumers was eventually destined to grow out of this obsolescence of the body.
Dan Graham: “In the 1950’s a new class emerged, a generation whose task was not to produce but to consume; this was the “teenager.” Freed from the work ethic so as not to add to postwar unemployment and liberated from the Puritan work ethic, their philosophy was fun. Their religion was rock ‘n’ roll. Rock turned the values of traditional American religion on their head. To rock ‘n’ roll meant to have sex…now.”
Puritanism, sterilized of the Holy Ghost, leads to American-style capitalism, undergirds the economic construct of empire in the latter half of the 20th century. And, indeed there were Puritans around all over the place, in those early days. Still are.
But hilljack prophets–foaming in ecstasy beneath the broad awning of the carnival tent–enjoined their audiences that the United States was serving the Devil in its new system of free enterprise. At the Great Revival of 1801, preachers pitched their big top tents out in the wilderness where whites had only just come to settle. They preached the need for salvation, mortification and of the need in America for a spiritual mission. In these tent gatherings, the rednecked pioneers clapped their hands, rhythmically reciting biblical texts.
Here for the first time the piano and the guitar replaced the organ as conveyor of spiritual feeling. The music is unyoked from the brick and mortar of the church. The saved would “reel and rock” and in their collective desire to be reborn, people would speak in tongues.
This is, more or less, the way Dan Graham lays the scene at his version of the Genesis moment of Rock ‘N’ Roll. From the beginning, the Puritans and the Holy HOST of Rock ‘N’ Rollers are locked into a dialectical theater of antagonism as the one group becomes THE MAN, and the other group becomes the cowed and manipulated consumer. The dynamism of the charismatics’ ritual rebellion against the dour, workaholic forces of Puritan authority remains central to the American character, and is re-enacted in the theater of pop-culture when Rock ‘N’ Roll becomes a major market force in the 20th century.
But there is a third strand in the braid, aside from the Puritan Thought Police and the Charismatic Spirit-Driven consumers. They are the original producers. A group who–in 1801 during the Great Revival–are admittedly present only as an extreme minority,although they would come to comprise almost 50% of the population in the South by the time the Civil War broke out. At some point there is a holy trinity: The Puritan, money-driven grownups, the crazed teenage fans speaking in tongues under the revival tent, and “the negro rock ‘n’ roller.” In the 19th century, this third group, of course, would have been the African American Slaves. Where are they in this cosmology?
Son House in Rolling Stone, 1968:
“Ooh gee, my dammit, along with me and Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and Blind Lemon. Long in them days we wouldn’t get nothin’. Nothin’ man. We’d get thirty or forty dollars, we had a couple of drinks of that bad old corn whiskey or something. The fact of the business is that we didn’t have no sense, nohow. Didn’t know nothin’ about it They just worked us, you know? They got it out of us.”
They’d found Son House, wet-brained and babbling, living in Rochester New York. It had been 22 years since last Alan Lomax recorded him, and Mr. House had no idea that he was famous. They sort of resurrected him. Got him clean clothes to wear, put a guitar in his hands and helped him get started playing again. And they put him up on the stage where, in monologues between songs, hardly anyone had any earthly idea what he was saying.
Son House: I’m a pretty old man now. All my old boys have gone back to their mothers’ dust, filled all them tons, like we all got to do some sooner or later. I don’t try to worry about it too much. I know that man up yonder–there ain’t no getting’ around on the side given’ him no little tips.
What we know, and what we can be sure of is that Muddy Waters came from Mississippi to Chicago along with hundreds of thousands of fellow refugees looking for work and for respite from the relentless persecution of the racist, Jim Crowe South. And it was there that he plugged in, literally, to the technological missing link between Delta Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll.
It may be true, as Lomax points out, that, “[Muddy Water’s] style is largely derived from the records of Robert Johnson [and from the style he’d learned from Son House].”
Rolling Stone November 9th, 1968: “There was a difference between Muddy’s instrumental work and that of House and Johnson, however, and the crucial difference was the result of Water’s use of the electric guitar on his Aristocrat sides; he had taken up the instrument shortly after moving to Chcago in 1943.”
The rest is history.