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Muddy Waters: Behind the sun

Muddy Waters

A new compilation of Muddy Waters’ recordings for the Chess label got me listening obsessively this week to “Louisiana Blues”, one of my favourite pieces of American music. The pleasure was enhanced by the fact that the mastering of Can’t Be Satisfied: The Very Best of Muddy Waters 1947-1975 gives the music, recorded on primitive equipment at the Chess Studio in Chicago almost 70 years ago, a new clarity without compromising its grainy warmth.

Recorded on October 23, 1950 with Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Ernest “Big” Crawford on string bass, the drummer Elgin Evans tapping something (possibly a washboard) almost subliminally, and an unknown second guitarist, “Louisiana Blues” has the subtlety and intricacy of chamber music. Opened by Muddy’s quivering unaccompanied bottleneck guitar, it eases quickly into a graceful pattern that switches between a light-footed stride and a funkier half-time rhythm as the instrumental lines wind around each other.

The time is hard to follow: there’s a basic 4/4, but Muddy throws in individual bars of 2/4 and 3/4. Unlike John Lee Hooker, however, he doesn’t do it because the symmetry of the conventional 12-bar blues is of no consequence to him. He does it because that’s what the natural cadence of the song, whose melody line echoes the bottleneck phrases, is demanding. You know that nothing was ever written down on a piece of manuscript paper that day in 1950, but this is nevertheless a fully composed piece.

If you’re trying to count the bars, it’s hard to follow — for me, anyway. And that’s what gives the record its everlasting mystery. It won’t stand still for you. It keeps moving to its own multi-layered momentum, seeming to slide out of your grasp while simultaneously pulling you forward with it.

Muddy wrote it, and I have a particular fondness for the first verse: “I’m going down in Louisiana / Baby, behind the sun / Well I just found out / My troubles just begun…” Behind the sun? That’s the poetry of the blues right there, in an image that leaps beyond literal meaning into the realm of the imagination. And the firm but gentle way he bends those words, laying them against the warping harmonica and bottleneck phrases, shows a supreme musicality at work.

(Another bluesman, Louisiana Red, used the phrase to introduce himself a dozen years on his first album, The Lowdown Back Porch Blues: “I am Louisiana Red / And I come from behind the sun…” Were they Muddy’s original words, or had he already borrowed them from someone else? I have no idea. But he makes them belong to him.)

Anyway, this three-minute act of perfection, characterised by a wonderfully delicate balance of interplay which we white boys of the 1960s could hope to do no more than crudely approximate, gave Muddy his first Top 10 hit in the R&B chart in February 1951, which says something about the good taste of his public. Now it’s hard to imagine a time when people all over the world won’t still be listening to it.

* Can’t Be Satisfied is a 2CD set, released on Universal’s Spectrum imprint. Its 40 tracks, selected by Russell Beecher, include material from many of Muddy’s single and album releases during his time with Chess, including selections from his 1960 Newport live album, Muddy Waters: Folk Singer, Folk Festival of the Blues, Electric Mud, Live at Mr Kelly’s and The London Muddy Waters Sessions. Listening to it sent me back to Robert Gordon’s Waters biography, also called Can’t Be Satisfied, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2002 and still highly recommended.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. mick gold #

    Agree with every word. As a 17 year old in Wembley Park, that shimmering sound of bottleneck guitar coupled with the words “baby, behind the sun” sung in Muddy’s deep warm voice was quite hallucinatory. I could see a huge sun sinking over the flat black earth of the Delta. “It gave me the shivers” as Keith Richards put it.

    February 16, 2018
  2. Richard Harris #

    “Oh, take me with you when you go!” Always loved that shout. Little Walter? They had it on the juke box (an EP) at the Freight Train cafe in the early 60s which is where I first heard it.

    Great piece as always and what always got me with those Chess Muddy sides was their power and their economy, the gaps and the subtlety. Not everything had to be filled and I think that’s a lesson lost, not least on some/most of the Brit imitators. And Muddy was a bloody good guitarist in what he did. As you say, “classic” in every sense.

    February 16, 2018
  3. MJG #

    What a great piece of writing. As someone who’s never knowingly heard the track (just too young to have heard it on a 60s jukebox) this has sent me in search of it, thank you

    February 16, 2018
  4. Absolutely great music. Little Walter died an astonishing 50 years ago yesterday. Who needed a horn section when you had Little Walter.

    February 16, 2018
    • What a good spot! I bought a Little Walter double CD the other week. Wonderful stuff.

      February 16, 2018
  5. Kevin Mitchell #

    Richard, have you seen Cadillac Records? Excellent film about Chess. K

    On 16 February 2018 at 19:53, wrote:

    > Richard Williams posted: ” A new compilation of Muddy Waters’ recordings > for the Chess label got me listening obsessively this week to “Louisiana > Blues”, one of my favourite pieces of American music. The pleasure was > enhanced by the fact that the mastering of Can’t Be Satisfied: ” >

    February 16, 2018
    • No, Kevin, I haven’t seen it. But I always meant to, and I’m glad you reminded me.

      February 16, 2018
      • Yes, well worth seeing. So is (if you’re in Chicago) 2120 S. Michigan Ave, now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, where so many of those Chess sides were cut. Gave me the shivers too

        February 22, 2018
  6. Michael in UK #

    Thank you Richard, what a pleasure to read this on coming home after long day at the office screenface. I don’t have any Muddy Waters in my CD collection, sounds like the wide song selection and new mastering makes this a no brainier choice.

    February 16, 2018
  7. Colin Harper #

    Fantastic Richard. I don’t own any Muddy Waters records either – I’ll buy this own on your recommendation (and from hearing the link to ‘Louisiana Blues’). It’s funny how you can sometimes think you ‘know’ an artist through covers of their songs by others and through – with the likes of Muddy – rather tired-sounding late period live clips, including that awful thing where people from the Rolling Stones get up and bumble around. I don’t think I’d ever listened to his early recordings before.

    February 16, 2018
  8. John Seaton #

    Great to hear of this new compilation. You, in turn, have sent me back to the recordings. What a wonderful rapport Muddy and Big Crawford had, one of the uncelebrated musical partnerships. How I agree with you about Robert Gordon’s book. Before I go any further, I should declare an interest: I work at Canongate where we had the privilege of reissuing Robert’s book in 2013: it remains in print.

    February 17, 2018
  9. Nice piece – and that is a great song! The rhythm alone is just endlessly compelling, completely natural sounding but somehow slippery.

    February 18, 2018
  10. Richard Harris #

    I think you can add John Lee Hooker to the “behind the sun” appropriaters. Cerys Mathews conveniently played his “Louisiana Blues for you” this morning, I guess from the early/mid 50s, which opens and part uses Muddy’s lyric and imagery. Hooker always was a Hoover (in a good way) and it was fine. Not Muddy though.

    February 18, 2018
  11. GuitarSlinger #

    Seriously Richard ? .. keep the count on two and four and you’ll see the rhythm is a steady consistent almost metronomic 4/4 with an occasional 3 against four thrown in for interest .

    Sheesh … you whitey tighty Brits and your inability to deal with the most basic of polyrhythms when it comes to blues and jazz

    Makes one wonder how y’all deal with the likes of Zappa etc

    February 18, 2018
    • I’m sorry, but whoever you are, I’m now completely fed up with you. I don’t like your attitude or, from what I can tell, your taste. I think it’s likely that if I ever met you, I’d give you a very wide berth indeed. So I’d be very grateful if you’d stop reading my blog. It isn’t meant for you.

      February 18, 2018
  12. hamertheframer #

    I’ve got to get a copy. As a teenager in the late 60s I caught a train from Manchester down to London to see Muddy Waters at the RFH about the time of Electric Mud and I was indeed electrified. It was only later that I realised blues musicians did occasionally play at the Free Trade Hall. But it was worth the trip. There and back again behind the sun!

    February 18, 2018

    Sorry to take a few days to respond to your fine piece on the great Muddy Waters – I’ve only just caught up with your recent posts. The unidentified second guitarist on ‘Louisiana Blues – I have an earlier Chess compilation featuring this track and the accompanying booklet identifies Jimmy Rogers in the role.

    As is often the case with your pieces, your referencing of other, lesser known artists with which many of us may not be familiar is just so valuable. In this case, I will certainly be seeking out the ‘Lowdown Back Porch Blues’ by Louisiana Red, a new name to me. Many thanks.

    February 22, 2018

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