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.