Classic Music Review: The Best of Muddy Waters

As my readers know, my usual practice is to listen to an album three times without distraction before I touch the keyboard. I have to confess that I have not followed that practice with The Best of Muddy Waters, but I’m still going ahead with my review. Before you accuse me of violating my sacred oath as a music critic who has repeatedly differentiated herself from the pack of lazy, insufferable, assembly-line losers who dominate music criticism today, allow me to explain.

I have been listening to nothing but The Best of Muddy Waters for four days straight. I listened to no other music during that period, though I will admit that I was distracted during some of those plays. Here is the full analysis:

Activity # Times Played # Times Listening While Otherwise Distracted (B-C) = Total Valid Listening Experiences
Making myself look beautiful in the morning (2 hours) 3 2 1
Walk/Metro to Work (40 minutes) 1 0 1
Decompressing from conversations with assholes from the States during working hours 2 0 2
Walk/Metro to apartment (40 minutes) 1 0 1
Getting ready to go out to dinner (90 minutes) 2 2 0
Dinner (90 minutes) 0 0 0
Fucking, two days, two hours per fuck (6/4) = 1.5 1.5 0
Last cigarette, winding down (45 minutes) 1 0 1
Totals 11.5 5.5 6
Days 4 4 4
TOTALS 46 22 24

I think listening to the album intently twenty-four times qualifies me to write this review, and I would further argue that listening to this intensely erotic album during sex validates my status as an MWCP (Muddy Waters Certified Practitioner).

After four days, I’m still not tired of it. I’m looking forward to writing the review because I always listen to the music while I write. I can’t wait to hear this album again! I’m in the exact same space inhabited by two young Englishmen fifty-two years ago, as described by Ted Gioia in Delta Blues:

When Keith Richards ran into his childhood pal Mick Jagger on a train in 1961— another one of those legendary encounters discussed above— he was struck forcibly by the Muddy Waters album in his friend’s possession, and they spent most of the rest of that day listening to it in silent rapture.

There are many reasons why The Best of Muddy Waters is so addicting. While Muddy Waters would never rate as a guitar virtuoso in the same vein as histrionic stylists like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, I can’t think of many guitarists whose sound possesses (in Gioia’s words) “tremendous vitality . . . he could drive a performance single-handedly.” Muddy’s vocal range is equally limited, but he has one of the most expressive and attention-commanding voices I’ve ever heard. Like Miles Davis, he wasn’t afraid to surround himself with the best musicians in the business, and if you’ve got Little Walter on harmonica, you’ve got the best harp player who ever breathed. The songs themselves are stunningly direct expressions of deep desires and emotions without any intervening bullshit. But more than anything else, Muddy Waters and crew played like they meant it—the music has an authenticity that is becoming increasingly rare in our auto-tuned and patched recording universe. While there are more extensive collections for connoisseurs, The Best of Muddy Waters is not only a solid representation of Muddy Waters’ best work but a fabulous introduction to Chicago blues (and to blues in general).

“I Just Want to Make Love to You”: This song has been covered by music practitioners and pretenders all across the spectrum: Adele (yecch!), Mungo Jerry (wow!), The Righteous Brothers (you’re kidding!), The Stones and, most famously, Foghat. None of these versions come close to capturing the true feel of the song. Written by Willie Dixon, one of the great songwriters of all-time and one of the horniest sons of bitches who ever sported an erection, this song is unique in the annals of romantic overtures because of its absolute commitment to real man-and-woman sex where both parties are equals and cultural roles don’t fucking matter.

I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep our home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you

There’s no game playing here and none of the silly, cutesy-wootsy courting rituals classically associated with seduction. The man doesn’t demand fidelity (“I don’t want you to be true”) and he doesn’t use the woman because he’s on the rebound or because he’s had a bad day (“I don’t want you ’cause I’m sad and blue”). Unlike most guys, he’s not trying to prove what a stud he is, bragging about his alleged prowess. The message is, “Let’s fuck, baby!” sung in a tone of pure, uncontaminated desire. I’ve had a lot of guys mouth the message, only to find out when the prick hits the pussy that they’re self-conscious poseurs. Muddy’s approach is pristine, sublime lust, and you just know he’s going to deliver the goods. The supporting players are simply outstanding right from the get-go, with Otis Spann’s piano forming a call-and-response with Little Walter on the harmonica over the throbbing bass of Willie Dixon, the rhythm guitar of Jimmy Rogers and the subtle drumming of Fred Below. When Little Walter hits his solo, he begins with a long blast on the harp that sounds like he’s holding that first deep thrust for a few seconds before he makes his moves. Adele? She can go fuck herself. This is the real deal. Cigarette!

“Long Distance Call”: I melt at the introduction to this song, a little duet with Muddy and Little Walter that intertwines elegance and soul. I don’t think Muddy hits a single note on the scale; it’s all sweet blue notes and bent chords that simmer with emotion. The interplay between harp and guitar continues throughout the song, with neither party taking the lead but both giving each other plenty of room to maneuver. If you want to hear what it’s like when two musicians are on the same wavelength, this is it.

“Louisiana Blues”: Opening with an equally fabulous guitar-harp duet, this number captures more of the Delta feel than your typical Chicago blues number. One of Muddy’s compositions, he sings here about unnamed troubles that are pushing him to New Orleans to “get me a mojo hand” (a hoodoo amulet containing a spell or prayer to ward off the troubles). While he’s in The Big Easy he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity and get himself a little poontang: “I’m ‘gon show all you good lookin’ women/Yes, how to treat your love.” When Muddy calls out, “Let’s get back to New Orleans, boys,” the instrumental passage that follows calls up an image of a rickety porch where the farmhands are relaxing with some music after a long, grueling week in the fields. Muddy was the key link between the Delta blues and the Chicago blues, and “Louisiana Blues” is a good example of how that played out. Once again, the interaction between Muddy and Little Walter is simply breathtaking. Damn, I love it when musicians really connect!

“Honey Bee”: Ted Gioia notes that “Eric Clapton studied Waters’s recordings, and felt that a major breakthrough in his guitar playing came when he could imitate part of the bluesman’s ‘Honey Bee.'” Muddy is a difficult guitarist to emulate, in part because blue notes are challenging all by themselves, and in part because of his unusual attack: playing mostly single notes using open tuning with a slide on his pinky finger. To further complicate matters, his fills are often achieved with a Delta finger-picking style rather than a guitar pick. He was also blessed with unusual dexterity that enabled him to snap off notes with precision. Now, take all of that and add his intuitive-emotional feel for the blues and it’s no wonder Clapton must have felt his entire soul light up when he managed to copy a small passage from “Honey Bee.” The buzzing on single notes and the vibrato pièce de resistance are absolutely stunning displays of guitar magic. Since I couldn’t emulate Muddy in my wildest dreams, my attention tends to turn to the lyrics, where once again he sings of sexual mores that defy the rules of the game:

I hear a lotta buzzing, sound like my little honey bee
She been all around the world making honey
But now she is coming back home to me

While most male songwriters of the era (and beyond) would have implied (because of censorship) that women like Honey Bee are trampy, no-good sluts, Muddy doesn’t say a word about revenge or putting her in her place for spreading her sweet nectar all over the world. He accepts that she had to sow her oats, too. “I don’t mind you sailing, but please don’t sail so long,” is an honest expression of his desire to be with her and an astonishingly generous and forgiving remark.

“Rollin’ Stone”: The real source of the band’s name, this is a traditional number that Muddy made his own with a few lyrical additions and his inimitable style. “Rollin’ Stone” was Muddy’s first Chess record, and the hiss on the track gives it a delicious time machine feel. The track features only Muddy and his guitar, and that simplicity reveals the strong core of his musical personality. Man, this fucker had power and presence! Throughout most of the song he stays firmly planted in the key of E, but both his guitar and vocal explore the entire scale rather than sticking to the notes dictated by the chord. This is the essence of the modal approach that I’ve talked about in my jazz reviews, so if you’re uncomfortable with all that music theory gibberish and you want to understand what I mean by “modal,” just listen to this song and how Muddy uses most of the notes between the root and the top of the scale. Back to our story . . . the absence of drums and bass is a huge plus in this piece, because it allows Muddy to play the song the way it feels rather than have his emotions forced into measures. Sometimes his notes and chords are suspended in defiance of the march of time, and those are beautiful moments.

“Rollin’ Stone” is a song about allowing one’s sexual drive to serve in place of traditional ambition:

Well, I wish, I was a catfish
Swimmin’ in a oh, deep blue sea
I would have all you good lookin’ women
Fishin’, fishin’ after me
Sure ‘nough, after me

Muddy is now in the Honey Bee role, wandering down the road, stopping to satisfy a married woman before letting his libido carry him to the next liaison. One of Muddy’s themes is that his essence was foreshadowed prior to birth by gypsies and old women; here he winds up a “rollin’ stone,” and like Honey Bee, he’s going to share his love with the world. The predestination in this case has nothing do with being trapped as in a caste system, instead the message is “there’s a part of me that just is what it is, like it or not.”

“I’m Ready”: I believe that the entire sorry history of the human race revolves around two words: male testosterone. When male testosterone levels rise to the point where they overtake logic and reason, men respond in two ways: they make love or they make war. I firmly believe that if Ms. Stick-Up-Her-Ass Condi Rice had crawled under the cabinet table and given Bush, Cheney and the boys blow jobs, there never would have been wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She probably would have blown all the fuses in Dick Cheney’s bionic heart, and today he’d be remembered as a man who gave his life for peace instead of one of the biggest assholes in American history.

Willie Dixon understood this, and he wrote about it in “I’m Ready.” Muddy’s testosterone levels are off the charts as he struts around like a cock (rooster) in this number. He knows his existential choices are sex or violence:

I got an axe handle pistol on a graveyard frame
That shoot tombstone bullets, wearin’ balls and chain
I’m drinkin’ TNT, I’m smokin’ dynamite
I hope some screwball start a fight
‘Cause I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me

All you pretty little chicks with your curly hair
I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere
But stop what your doin’ baby come over here
I’ll prove to you baby, that I ain’t no square
Because I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
Now I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me

When Muddy sings “I hope some screwball start a fight,” he nails the essence of a man whose hormones are boiling and he’s got to either kick some ass or get some ass. The crucial line for me is when Muddy sings to the pretty little chicks, “I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere,” a very perceptive line. I know very few women who are dumb enough to be attracted to male swagger; most of us think it’s cute, a term that encompasses the underlying meanings of “laughable” and “Come back when you grow up, sonny boy.” We know that guys with that attitude will lose it in about thirty seconds; the stance is pure bluff. When that same man chooses to kick some ass, he becomes even more of a pathetic joke. Give it up, guys! You’ll be much more content in a social structure based on female domination!

The music is smoky-bar-perfect, a sexy swing with a groove that makes you smile. When Little Walter takes center stage, I imagine him playing a harmonica that’s six feet long, because there’s no way you can get a sound that big out of such a compact instrument. Jimmy Rogers does some very nifty work on second guitar as Muddy puts most of his testosterone into the vocal.

“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”: A hoochie coochie man is one with a track record with the ladies, and Willie Dixon reveals the secret behind studliness in this classic number. Before the pharma companies hooked men into buying Viagra, there were good old-fashioned hoodoo remedies like a black cat bone and a mojo and herbal remedies like “Johnny Concheroo,” a root. Most guys don’t advertise the fact they may be using Viagra, so it’s really generous for Willie to let the guys in on the secret! The classic stop-time blues structure is perfect for an expressive singer like Muddy, and the drama it creates really adds fire to the piece.

“She Moves Me”: Muddy falls under the spell of an aggressive, dominating woman who gets drunk, calls him a dumbbell and tells him he’s a square, but to him she’s pure magic. I love the way he can’t explain her power, because if power can be explained, it isn’t very powerful, is it? The refrain, “She moves me man, honey, and I don’t see how it’s done” is a sublime expression of how a great woman can melt a man’s heart and stiffen his penis by taking detours around his logical brain. His opening lick of very blue notes is played almost submissively; he’s past the bravado of “I’m Ready” and is ready to serve! My kind of man!

“I Want You to Love Me”: Opening like a slow tempo version of The Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man,” this is one of my favorite expressions of the philosophy of true love: it’s not about manipulation, playing games and trying to entrap someone, it’s about choosing: “I want you to love me, baby/Love with your own free will.” It’s also about giving it all and not holding back because of insecurity or self-consciousness, “I want you to love me baby/’Til I drop dead from your love.” I’m cool with that, as long as you’re on the bottom, dude! Backup harp player Walter “Shakey” Horton does a damn fine job on this track.

“Standin’ Around Cryin'”: This is another call-and-response with Little Walter, who uses that harp to express the inexpressible emotion that the lyrics can’t possibly capture: those deep feelings that hit you in the gut and make you feel a bit dizzy, as if the world around you has shifted in a heartbeat. This and “Still a Fool” are the bluesiest numbers on the album, in the down sense of the word.

“Still a Fool”: Definitely more Delta than Chicago despite the electric guitar, there’s a point where I think Robert Johnson’s ghost has slipped into Muddy’s body. What makes it Delta is the tendency to use the root chord to explore the mode and the imagery of trains and crossroads. Muddy gives one of his most intense vocals on the album, as if he’s in a deep trance as he feels his way through his troubles and the image of the long, tall, willowy and unfortunately married woman at the source. A bravado performance.

“I Can’t Be Satisfied”: This is the most primitive recording of the lot, originally a song that was part of the Library of Congress recordings made when Muddy was first discovered in the Delta. I’m in total agreement with Ted Gioia’s description of this song as a pivotal moment in blues:

And if his previous country blues had looked back to Son House and Robert Johnson, this passionate performance anticipates the future of the blues, with its sassier, more independent attitudes, its celebration of raw appetite, not softened by metaphor or coy allusions as in so many earlier blues songs, but presented with unprecedented starkness. Even Muddy’s own later move to Chicago is hinted at in its opening phrases. “Well, if I feel tomorrow like I feel today/I’m gonna pack my suitcase/And make my getaway . . . This is no lament over bein’ mistreated, but something far more carnal in its origins. “I never been satisfied,” Waters proclaims, his bottleneck drawing out wavering moans from the guitar behind his vocal.

His riffs also communicate that sense of restless confidence, as he moves over a large piece of the fretboard with sprightliness. He leaves the melody for spoken voice on the “I could never be satisfied” lines, a technique that was very common with the Delta crowd and makes it feel like you’re sitting right there on the porch with the guy. It’s a toe-tappin’, head-shakin’ kick, just Muddy and the guitar, and a blessed artifact of musical history.

When I start listening to blues this intently, it usually means that I’ve entered my annual blues jag. I don’t think that’s going to happen, for the mood that sparks that jag is contemplative and introverted, and I’m not feeling that way at all. In fact, I’m feeling pretty sprightly these days! I think that what drove me to Muddy Waters was a deep yearning for authenticity, for the sound of musicians making a full commitment to the art and for a few moments of genuine human communication in a world that’s drowning in bullshit. The fact that Muddy is one of the great erotic artists in any genre made the experience that much sweeter.

I think I’ll play it just one more time.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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