When news began to leak out that Robert Gordon's new book was close to publication, there was a sense of excitement in the air among blues fans and scholars, and rightly so, considering the accolades that surrounded some of this author's previous work, including "It Came From Memphis." Recognized as a young and gifted writer with a true passion and respect for blues, its history and performers, camps were lopsidedly in favor of McKinley Morganfield being the subject matter of a new offering from Gordon. Plain and simple, "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters," definitely delivers excitement and does not disappoint.
Prior to and following his death in 1983, and indeed during his long and storied career, Muddy Waters was the point-of-discussion in countless liner notes and articles, plus he was covered at length in 1997's "Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man" by Sandra Tooze, which (unfortunately) was little more than a lengthy and descriptive discography, and although expectations were high for Gordon's projected work, questions remained as to how much new information he be able to uncover due to the passage of muddied time. Those small doubts have been loudly answered in the 284 pages of text, and the additional near 90 page appendix which follows. If there is one small quibble, it is only the short foreword penned by Keith Richards, written at perhaps a fifth grade level, but even that proves further the lasting influence of Muddy considering Richards and his British cronies, the Rolling Stones, and their impact on the world of rock and roll.
Split into fifteen chapters, Gordon unearths much in the way of new and valuable information pertaining to a man who has long been thought of as the lynchpin between the beginnings of Delta Blues and what modern blues would become once it ambled out of Mississippi, subsequently landing much further North, in locales such as Detroit or Chicago, the latter being where Waters headed after departing his Southern home. Long thought to be factual information, since it was provided by Muddy himself in many interviews, we accepted his birthdate as April 4, 1915, in Rolling Fork, Sharkey County, MS. What we now learn as truth is an actual birthdate of April 4, 1913, making Morganfield a full two years older than we had realized. Things don't stop there either; Gordon goes on to explain that Waters was born at Jugs Corner in Issaquena County, a place so small, it was off the map. His parents, Ollie Morganfield and Berta Jones never married, and in a clever and creative style, Gordon wraps up the new information succinctly; "He thus became a man born in a year he wasn't born in, from a town where he wasn't born, carrying a name he wasn't born with."
Had that been all that there was for us to sink our teeth into, Gordon writing about Muddy Waters still would have been somewhat of a success as his style is often witty, always flowing, and effortlessly respectful to blues and its masters, but the detective work didn't stop there. When Waters first recorded for the Library of Congress in 1941 and '42 during a field trip undertaken by John Work and Alan Lomax, also rounded up to cut sides were Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, Son Sims, plus others, and these dates and sessions were annotated, holding long-lost yet correct dates for what was the "Fisk Library of Congress Coahoma County Study." The study itself was never published and thought lost, although search-and-rescue missions had been discussed and attempted by numerous researchers since 1945, long before to Mr. Gordon's arrival. While foraging through various ephemera in the John Work Archives at Fisk University doing research for this Muddy Waters book, the author stumbled across the study, and now offers a highly informative itinerary for the recording trip and we now have a correct time-line for the LoC sessions that Son House, Muddy, and others took part in over those two-plus years.
It's not all fun and glory here though, for while working on something this important, a few odd details will wrestle their way to the surface of the pages now and again. James Cotton, a harmonica player of enormous talent is referred to a number of times due to his association with Muddy. At one point, Gordon leads the reader to believe that 1954's "Cotton Crop Blues" on the Sun label should be credited to the harp player in question, which relays the thought that Gordon is perhaps unfamiliar with Roosevelt Sykes' version from 1930, titled "Cotton Seed Blues," simply updated when Cotton cut the track. There are also a few other missed opportunities in the proper credit department that flare up where Gordon points to Muddy Waters instead of correctly looking to people like Tommy McClennan who penned "Deep Blue Sea," which later lent itself to a number of Muddy Waters tracks, including the highly successful "Rollin' Stone."
There are those who erroneously believe Muddy Waters was a "sweet jazz" musician in his early days and Lomax having documented records in Muddy's collection certainly could lend credence to those thoughts. However, Gordon helps those less-informed (if possessed of a keen and watchful eye) by telling us it was Lester Melrose's stable of artists pumping out what is known as the "Bluebird beat," that Muddy considered "sweet jazz." Artists like Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, and many others tended to sound mass-produced, mainly due to the incest-like sideman efforts of Melrose, who continually cross-pollinated recordings by one with assistance from a bevy of similar sounding artists. Muddy couldn't have been further from this practice once he landed with the Chess brothers' Aristocrat label in 1947 and began to pump out slashing bottleneck blues either going it alone, or with assistance from Ernest "Big" Crawford, who plunked out acoustic bass figures perfectly matched with Muddy's Delta-infused guitar. Crawford had recorded with Andrew Tibbs taking a smoother, cocktail blues approach, but joining Muddy so charged the bassist that he was laughing out loud and told Muddy... "This is my type of stuff."
It is Gordon's attention to detail that leaps from page after page of "Can't Be Satisfied" and his descriptive phrases buoy the imaginations of even the most grizzled and hardcore blues scholars. While describing Baby Face Leroy Foster's crushing take of the Delta anthem, "Rollin And Tumblin'," the author manages freshness by saying, "Someone yelps. Someone else responds. The randomness of the interjections is frightening, the rapid-fire drumming disorienting. Muddy's slide rings like loose spokes on an iron wheel, haywire. The harp is hypnotic. Chant and hum, chant and hum. Violence hangs everywhere."
Outside women, a number of marriages, and a healthy throng of offspring were also part and parcel of Muddy's life and Gordon pulls no punches, providing information on all of Waters' sordid affairs. But it is an understanding of Muddy and the scores of African-Americans who listened intently to his music that goes much further and offers a far better look at why his habits played the role they did; "Lyrically, most of Muddy's songs were about sex -- sex with someone else's wife, sex with someone else's girlfriend, sex and trouble. But it was always a trouble he survived, a scrape he escaped. Sex was sex, but sex also became an analogy for a kind of freedom, a freedom to serve himself, to damn the torpedoes, the shift supervisor, and the overseer's big gun. The sound of the songs reflected the newfound ebullience: Muddy, near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, corralled the sense of postwar possibility and excitement. The have-nots were finally having -- not having much, but even a little was a lot. The muscle of his electric guitar and the force of his ensemble sound and the fierce assertiveness of his voice unleashed the exuberance of a people. There was cause for celebration, and Muddy was the vehicle." Gordon drives the point home when discussing a throbbing track spawned from a July date in 1951; " "Still A Fool," a paean to the outside woman, is a song as important for what it suggests as what it says. The guitar's burning distortion evokes an over-the-top madness, an uncontrollable desire beyond all reason, of fucking a woman between rows of cotton, then stepping one row over and having her sister. "They say she's no good," he sings, "but she's all right by me." Women were a matter of quantity over quality to Muddy, and "Still A Fool" is his best attempt to explain himself."
The newly uncovered information is certainly impressive, as is Gordon's creativity, throughout the 284 pages of text, but the corker could actually be the appendix that follows. Brimming with solid facts, dates, names, places, and practically anything else necessary, Gordon put it all together so smoothly, it reads more like an added few chapters of the book itself than the actual gathering of information on Muddy's parents, life on Stovall Plantation, Musician's Union cases, disturbances in the home, session details, and much more. How the appendix came about deserves mention here. Following his gathering of information on Muddy Waters, Gordon finally sat down to write the book proper. What is now the appendix was originally in place in the text pages, but when completed, Gordon was disappointed and found his work more mundane than exciting. Deciding to remove some of the factual information from the main part of the book proved to be a major score for Gordon, and although relegated to the hind quarters of "Can't Be Satisfied," the appendix is impressive, and has thus become a major part of the book itself.
There are simply no major drawbacks or disappointments when reading "The Life and Times of Muddy Waters," and why needs little more than the mention of Robert Gordon's name. The author has managed to put it all here and it's where it belongs... from the muck of the Mississippi Delta to the grit and grime of Chicago's Southside. From the influence of Big Bill Broonzy on Muddy, to Muddy's influence on big-name rock and rollers. From friends like Scott Bohaner and Andrew Bolton, to sidemen like Otis Spann and Little Walter. Muddy Waters may well be one of the more written-about blues performers in this country's history, but his achievements stand the test of time, and Robert Gordon's book will easily do the same. In conjunction with the book, Gordon also put together a documentary film on Muddy as part of the "American Masters" series, due to air on PBS in the early months of 2003.
Special thanks to Ricardo Reccioni for providing invaluable assistance.
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