Writing a biography can be like archeology, especially when your subject and many of his closest contemporaries are dead. Much of what you have to go by depends on locating old interview quotes and newspaper articles, the rest hinges on locating friends that no one ever thought to talk to before. Then the challenge is to put all this together into an interesting tale, to blow away the dust and paint a vibrant, full toned picture.
Robert Gordon succeeds mightily in this in-depth biography of one of the founders of Chicago Blues, the man who brought the pulse of the Mississippi delta to the steel-edged industrial north. Gordon follows Muddy from his young days as a field hand driving tractors, to his death at age 70, living in his own suburban house with his extended family. Along the way he delves deep into Muddy the man, his numerous women and children, as well as the music. (A previous work, MUDDY WATERS, THE MOJO MAN by Sandra Tooze-ECW Press, 1997-concentrated mainly on his career and recordings.)
Gordon begins with data gleaned from the Library of Congress files-they were sponsors of a song collecting trip in the south in the early 1940s. Alan Lomax, along with black co-researcher John Work traveled through the area looking for bluesmen like Robert Johnson-and they eventually found Son House, Honeyboy Edwards and Muddy Water (the "s" came later) and recorded all three. Gordon has unearthed a Lomax questionnaire and a letter written by Muddy to Lomax, as well as the interviewer's list of records in Muddy's collection, documents that make the trip all the more vivid, some sixty years later. Hearing himself back for the first time on these field recordings, Muddy got the idea that maybe he could make a living with music, and after being turned down for a raise by a plantation boss, he headed north to Chicago.
Gordon located and quotes childhood companions of Muddy's, including his driver and housemate Andrew Bolton, (who Muddy accidentally shot in the leg one New Years Eve), even going so far as traveling the Mississippi backroads, looking for "old people" who might remember the era. He traces Muddy's early years in Chicago, his first steps as a "sweet jazz" musician, and his evolution into a distinctive voice for the many northern immigrants who had come up looking for better jobs and social conditions. He also tracks Muddy's relationships with women, uncovering details on several "road wives" and "outside" children, all while Muddy was still with his companion of 25 years, Geneva. When a grand-daughter got pregnant at 13, Muddy's comment was "young girls make strong babies".
Gordon makes the case that since Muddy was brought up on a plantation, he was used to working on shares for a paternalistic white boss, and that he maintained that attitude throughout the years in his relationship with the Chess Brothers record company. As an example, Gordon details how Muddy was scammed out of ownership of his songs by his publishing company. He follows Muddy's sixties career decline as blues faded in popularity with black audiences and his subsequent renaissance, where he became a revered figure on the white ballroom/concert circuit, recorded with Johnny Winter, and had sit-in guests like the Rolling Stones. The story ends with Muddy's 1983 death from cancer, his last gig being a sit in at an Eric Clapton concert, he died not long after, at home in his sleep.
The main tale is told in some 284 pages, but its enriched by another 87 pages of back notes, which goes into greater depth on details that might have sidetracked the main narrative; things like Muddys parents background, history of Stovall Plantation, notes from Musicians Union meetings, stories of recording sessions, domestic battles etc. Originally many of these had been included in the main text, but Gordon (author of "It Came From Memphis", and compiler and annotator of the Al Green box set, "Anthology") felt the result was "a big fat, boring book". So he spent another two years on further research, and "honing the story, giving it a narrative drive without burying the reader in facts." The result is two parallel tracks, making for inter-active reading as you flip back and forth, and hard core fans like myself will relish the richness of detail to be found there. The sixteen page photo sections includes the usual performance shots as well as rarer items like family and club shots with earlier bands.
An appendix mentions a forthcoming companion CD for the book, focusing on Muddy's smaller label efforts-that has since been dropped, due to logistical problems. However, Gordon has produced an hour long video which will be available early next year, and shown next season (February 2003) on the PBS "American Masters" series. It includes interviews with former bandmates, girlfriends, Muddy's widow and grandchildren-as well as performance clips. (He's also writing and producing a Memphis Blues episode for the forthcoming 7 part PBS Martin Scorcese series, The Blues.)
All in all, a fine effort at unearthing and bringing to life the story of a major musician -- and a fitting tribute to one of the greats of American music. Sail On....
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