Archive for May, 2021

Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready”

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

When Muddy Waters came to Chicago in 1943, musicians looking for a bit of money would set up all along the Maxwell Street Market. The Market had stores of all kinds, dry goods, fresh produce, meat and fish, textiles and garments, jewellers and barbers, pharmacies, pawn shops, the back rooms of these stores devoted to card games and dice. Muddy met guitarist Jimmy Rogers there and they became fast friends, both being from the Delta, both raised by their grandmothers. Rogers introduced Muddy to Little Walter, a young fireball who wore the scars of many knife fights on his face. Muddy said that Little Walter “could think twice to your once” and took the blues harp into uncharted territory. They formed a band with Baby Face Leroy on drums and played clubs like the Zanzibar, the Chicken Shack, the Purple Cat, Silvio’s and the Du Drop Inn. The clubs were very violent, recalls Rogers. “Some guy would get mad with his old lady and they’d fight. Somebody would get cut or get shot.”

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

When drummer “Elgin” Edmonds joined the band with pianist Otis Spann, Muddy had a real blues band on his hands. The photo on the right shows Muddy, Henry Armstrong, a sign painter who helped the band make posters, Otis Spann at the piano, Henry “Pot” Strong on harp, drummer Elgin Edmonds in the background and Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Henry Strong was nicknamed “Pot” because of his fondness for reefer. Sometime after this photo was taken, Jimmy Rogers gave Pot a ride home. Muddy had gone on before and was already there. A scuffle broke out between Pot, a ladies man, and his jealous wife Juanita, who stabbed him through the lung. Muddy found Pot bleeding on the lobby’s marble floor, wrapped him up in a quilt and drove him to the hospital but Pot died on the way. He was 25 years old.

It was at this time that blues music, previously rural, became urban. The electric instruments, and especially the drums, conquered the unruly crowds and the solid beat sent everybody to the dance floor. The blues was now dance music and its popularity skyrocketed.

Harmonica player Willie Foster recalls visiting Muddy’s apartment and Willie Dixon answered the door. Muddy was shaving in the bathroom and stuck his head out, asking Foster “Are you ready?” to which Foster replied “Ready as anybody can be.” Muddy and Willie Dixon looked at each other and the song “I’m Ready” was written in a few days. A little later on, pianist Sunnyland Slim introduced Muddy to the Chess brothers. On the first of September 1954, they cut their first session at the new Chess studios, yielding the hit “I’m Ready.” The recording features Little Walter on chromatic harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, with Muddy signing. The song hit number 4 on Billboard’s charts.

In an article titled “Pop Music Rides R&B Tidal Wave,” Billboard wrote that rhythm and blues was no longer restricted to a black audience. Used juke box records were being snapped up by white neighborhood kids, in particular records by Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown and Willie Mabon. The popularity of the blues was crossing over to white audiences. Down in Memphis, record producer Sam Philips started Sun Studios and the talent he recorded was stellar : Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and, of course, Elvis Presley. A disc jockey named Alan Freed (1921-1965) came to the forefront of the “crossover” music he played on the radio, calling it “rock and roll,” a phrase originally used in Billboard magazine as early as 1946. By the time I was five, I had a front-row seat to this new music, thanks to my talented and generous brother Gabriel. He patiently introduced me to the music of his time. It was by listening to this music that my obscure world solifified into something clear and so real.

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars
Alrick Huebener – electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums

I’m Ready

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“Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters

Muddy en 1950

Muddy in 1950

In February of 1950, one month after I was born, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, 1913-1983) stepped into a Chicago studio to record his composition called “Rollin’ Stone.” The recording was odd because it featured Muddy singing and playing an electric guitar, nothing else. It marked the start of the transition from acoustic rural blues to electric urban blues, now universally known as Chicago Blues. The song spoke of rootlessness, independence and post-war angst. Like existentialist thinkers, bluesmen of the 20th century explored issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Muddy was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and his parents never married and never lived together, as was common in the South at that time. Raised by his grandmother, she named him “Muddy” because he frequently carried the Mississippi River mud into the house as a boy. The “Waters” part was added on later by some friends. His grandmother saw that he was raised in the Baptist tradition, singing spirituals, an important part of Muddy’s development as a singer. Big for his age, he started working on a plantation when he was eight years old. He picked cotton, beans, corn, plowed behind a mule and, on good days, drove a truck. As a result, Muddy was illiterate all his life, the kind of forced illiteracy that was the fate of most black men and women in the South at the turn of the 20th century.

Muddy worked at Stovall’s plantation, which was, by most accounts, one of the better places to work in Mississippi although the surrounding region knew its share of lynchings. Stovall’s was 4,000 acres, no running water or electricity and they paid their employees in scrip or tokens, exchangeable for goods sold only at the company store. The same belittling practice was adopted by the Edwards lumber mill during the early days of Rockland, my home town.

Stovall’s was a regular stop for many musicians and Muddy remembers learning how to play the guitar by watching Son House, Charley Patton and the Mississippi Sheiks, a local string band. By the time he was seventeen, Muddy was a fixture at Stovall’s plantation, as a bootlegger and as their most popular musician.

In August of 1941, Muddy got word that a white man was looking for him. This was never good news and he immediately thought that they had come to arrest him for selling whiskey. When he met the white man, Muddy, like any southern black man who knew his place, said “Yassuh?” to which the white man replied “Hey, hey, don’t yassuh me. I want to hear you play guitar.” This white man was Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who was scouring the South to record songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress in Washington. But Alan Lomax was no “ordinary” white racist. At one point, he asked Muddy for a drink of water and drank out of the same cup Muddy used. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that in the segregated South.

Muddy avec Son Sims

Muddy with Son Sims in 1941

Lomax hooked up his portable recording equipment, ran a microphone into the house and recorded Muddy, occasionally backed by other plantation musicians like Son Sims, a fiddler who had played with many bluesmen, including the great Charley Patton. Lomax came back in 1942 and recorded some additional songs and both sessions were released in 1966 on an album entitled “Down On Stovall’s Plantation.”

Down On Stovall's Plantation

Down On Stovall’s Plantation

That record became a mainstay of my collection as a young man. The sound of Muddy on those recordings reveals an able guitarist and certainly one of the most powerful, moving singers I’ve ever heard. Also, consider some of the lyrics to Muddy’s “Country Blues No. 1”: on fate and its inevitabilities, he wrote “Brooks run into the ocean/ and the ocean runs into the sea.” On the drudgery of daily life on the plantation, he wrote “Minutes seem like hours/ and the hours seem like days.” Plain, natural country poetry.

Muddy thought his recordings were something of a modern miracle and wanted to record more songs but he realized he would have to go up north to do so and for that, he needed money. He began to do odd jobs, playing blues all night for 50 cents and a sandwich, even trapping furs, like my father did when our family was young. When cotton was not in season, Muddy moved around to other harvests, rambling all the time. It was a dangerous business. At the time, the police arrested all blacks travelling alone and charged them with vagrancy. These men ended up as free labour on penal farms – this is how southern highways were built. It was during this period of restlessness and constant motion that Muddy wrote “Rollin’ Stone” and indeed, he gathered no moss.

After a brief and unsuccessful stint in St. Louis, Muddy finally moved to Chicago in 1943. New York and Los Angeles were also popular destinations for southern black men searching for their place in a world where they had previously been chattel. By the end of the forties, the average annual wage for blacks in Chicago was $1,919. In Mississippi, it was $439. Muddy started working in a paper factory and a glass factory, driving a delivery truck. At night, he played the South Side clubs but it was still the jazz era and nobody wanted to hear blues singers. In fact, no one could hear Muddy and his acoustic guitar in a room full of dancing, liquor, arguments and fights. Musicians often played behind a curtain of chicken wire to protect themselves from flying beer bottles. The solution came with technology and the newly developed electric guitar. Muddy soon added bass, drums, piano and harmonica and his band, one of the best ever assembled, could now be heard above the shouting, yelling and ruckus of any crowd.

The 1942-1944 musicians’ union strike with the record companies over royalty payments had three major consequences: the rise of small independent record companies, the decline of the Big Bands and the rise of the vocalists. This made it possible for several creative artists to forge the exciting new sounds of rhythm ‘n blues (R&B) and it also opened the door for singers like Muddy Waters.

The Chess brothers, Leonard (1917-1969) and Phil (1921-2016), who were to play an integral part in the recording and distribution of past-war blues, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Chicago. The brothers started the Macomba Club and bought an interest in Aristocrat Records, a struggling venture. Aristocrat became Chess Records in 1950 and Chess started to record the new electric blues becoming more and more popular in clubs all over the South Side. Nobody knew anything about the electric guitar or how to record it but it was a period of beautiful experimentation and surging popularity. Every porter, Pullman conductor, beauty salon and barbershop was selling records. Simultaneously and silently, events convened like clouds on the horizon and the perfect storm that was to be Rock ‘n Roll loomed inevitably.

Muddy’s 1950 recording of “Rollin’ Stone” for Chess is loosely based on “Catfish Blues,” an old song they’d been singing for years in the Delta, but it never sounded like this. If I had to choose a single song as the embodiment of post-war blues, it would be “Rollin’ Stone.” The song gave its name to the influential sociopolitical magazine “Rolling Stone” and, of course, the name of the rock group The Rolling Stones. The song also provided a well of dissonant tonalities that Jimi Hendrix visited often during his career. A year later, Muddy recorded the song with added instrumentation and released it as “Still a Fool.” My arrangement of “Rollin’ Stone” borrows from both recordings.

Richard Séguin – voice and electric guitar

Rollin’ Stone

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