My favorite blues music takes me back
Music may indeed soothe the savage breast. But it’s a flashpoint between We Old Folks and Those Young ‘Uns.
Flip through memories of the tunes and crooners on whom we grew up: Ezio Pinza singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” Frank Sinatra seeing a man who danced with his wife, Joan Baez singing just about anything.
The real deal, each and every one of them.
Well, when someone young enough to be my great-grandson starts lavishing praise on a heavy metal group I’ve never heard of (and never want to hear), the wide generational gulf only gets wider.
But it isn’t just popular classics from the 1945-1965 period that get my sentimentality and my blood pressure cranking. It’s the music that many of us boogeyed to, sipped forbidden wine to, stole a kiss to.
For me, that list consists of one guy and one guy only.
He was a staple of the Chicago delta blues scene in the 1950s and 1960s. He could crackle, he could belt, he could cajole, he could rasp. There was no one like him.
I had never heard of Waters — or heard of Chicago blues — when I fetched up in that windy city in 1962 for my first year of college. One crisp fall day, I was walking past the main auditorium when I heard some musicians tuning up inside.
A curious soul, then and now, I opened up a side door. And got absolutely pulverized with electric guitars and thumping vocals.
Gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born
Got a boy child comin’
Gonna be a son of a gun
It didn’t take me long to learn that this was The Mud Man’s anthem. It’s called “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
As they used to say on the radio in those post-war days, run, do not walk, to Google if you’ve never heard this song, or Muddy.
Hoochie Coochie Man will cause a severe outbreak of toe tapping, finger drumming and warmth spreading all through your creaky bones.
Muddy Waters had the most humble upbringing imaginable. From toddlerhood, he picked cotton in Mississippi. He lived in a shack made of wood slats reinforced with mud (thus his nickname). He did not learn to read or write until he was 50 years old.
He had, as they politely say, many relationships, which produced several children. He fancied large Buicks and pinky rings. He was no choir boy, for sure. But he was a star, and he knew it.
Alas, like many African-American blues singers, he never made anywhere near as much money from his talent as he should have. Sharp music promoters (always White) made sure that they got the lion’s share of every track Muddy ever recorded. It was the same with Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Albert King and many other bluesmen who wailed on harmonicas and harmonies.
Nevertheless, Muddy Waters knew how to grip my teenaged lapels and shake-shake-shake them.
Rock and roll? Oh, sure, it had its moments. But it struck me so often as bubble-gummy and naïve.
Folk music? Nice, but too self-conscious.
Show tunes? They were singable and predictable, which was both the good news and the bad.
When Muddy Waters sang the blues, he was somehow mournful and hopeful at the same time. When he told of being mistreated, you were right there with him. When he pleaded, his pain was your pain.
Baby, please don’t go
Baby, please don’t go
Baby, please don’t go down to New Orleans
Because I love you so
Or his unlucky-in-love classic, “Got My Mojo Working”:
Got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you
Want to love you so bad that I don’t know what to do
No, his lyrics won’t win any poetry contests. But if you want your music raw and real, if you want it genuine and unembellished, if you want to snap your fingers and sing right along, Muddy has been my go-to guy since my hair was brown and my legs could still sprint for the bus.
I suppose I could open up my musical windows and let in some fresh air. I could try to like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam. I could begin to recognize the bitter reality of rap. I could try to get beyond my lifelong resistance to classical (all those violins!).
But when I tee up Muddy’s greatest hits, I don’t need anyone or anything else.
I don’t want anyone else.
I just want to hear his mouth harp, and then his bass-baritone, so I can be 17 again.
She’s the one I’m loving
She’s the one I hate to lose
I could say exactly the same about Mr. Muddy Waters. Love him. Hate to have lost him.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.