From poor sharecropper to American cultural icon

review of Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon, publisher: Little, Brown and Company

by Moe Berg, Edmonton Journal, July 28, 2002

As Keith Richards says in his introduction, "Twentieth-century music is based on the blues. You wouldn't have jazz or any other modern music without the blues."

That includes The Rolling Stones who were named after one of Muddy Waters' biggest hits and cut their musical teeth on the blues legend's records. Not only does modern music begin with the blues but the history of the blues is a large part of the history of America. It encompasses racism, poverty and the migration of African Americans north. Blues was the first commercial black music, it spawned the first black radio stations and turned young African Americans into stars. The blues were born on the Mississippi Delta. African Americans still shaking off the shackles of slavery had moved mere inches toward the American Dream. Mostly, they toiled as sharecroppers on plantations, picking cotton, trapping animals and doing what they could to survive.

In Robert Gordon's book, Waters describes house parties held out in the country away from the plantation that offered moonshine, gambling and the blues. It was at one of these dangerous late night bashes that he saw the legendary Son House play. Muddy was 14. "I stone got crazy when I seen somebody run down them strings with a bottleneck," he said after watching House play the slide guitar. "My eyes lit up like a Christmas tree and I said that I had to learn." Waters did learn, and then took those Delta blues to Chicago, electrified them and the rest, as they say, is history.

Can't Be Satisfied is exhaustively researched, giving us intimate details of Muddy's career. Occasionally the tale gets bogged down as Gordon recreates the minutia of Waters' life.

A minor flaw is Gordon's repeated attempts to express in words what Muddy was playing. An early recording of Rollin' and Tumblin is described as, "pugilistic and sexual. Violence hangs everywhere, the sex heated and raw." He says Little Walter's harp playing had an "acrobatic litheness to it."

While these passages may be pretty, music rarely benefits from attempts to verbalize its sound.

Muddy's upbringing as a sharecropper informed the way he would conduct business for the rest of his life. This is Can't Be Satisfied's most compelling insight. Gordon writes, "Sharecropping - getting less than half of what you've got coming to you - was good training for the music business."

Chess Records represented the plantation owner who would make sure Muddy never went hungry. Even as the Chess Brothers were ripping him off, misrepresenting his music and recording him with musicians far inferior to his own band, he remained loyal to them because he knew they'd always make his car payment, give him a hand-out of his own money; provide a "furnish" which is what the bosses on the Stovall plantation did back in Clarkdale, Miss. Those who doubt the continuing legacy of slavery and early-twentieth century plantation life on black culture would do well to study Muddy Waters life.

Gordon takes us to Europe where Muddy almost single-handedly ignited Rock and Roll's British Invasion. Like many innovators, Waters watched his imitators reap rewards far greater than his own.

Unlike Sandra B. Tooze's 1997 biography, Muddy Waters, The Mojo Man, Gordon gingerly dips into Muddy's personal life. The raw sexuality of Waters music mirrored his own life and his long-suffering wife Geneva endured Muddy's 'road wives' and countless girlfriends. However, Gordon respectfully keeps the dirt to a minimum; readers looking for an Albert Goldman-like expose will leave wanting.

Blues fans, archivists and even history buffs will be fascinated by Gordon's account of Muddy's humble beginnings, his rise to fame, recording sessions and life on the road. Can't Be Satisfied is a serious and reverential look at one of the most influential figures in American culture.

©Copyright 2002 CanWest Global Communications Corp.

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