“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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