I don’t understand the Blues. I don’t know the Blues. My dad only played country music on our car trips growing up. I listened to Mariah Carey and REM and Crash Test Dummies as a teenager. And now the songwriters I drift towards like Bon Iver might put Howlin Wolf and Buddy Guy to sleep. It wasn’t until I heard Solomon Burke sing "How I Got to Memphis" – a song that to this very day makes me want to call the river city home, just for a little stint, to feel the hurting truth of King Solomon – that the Blues knocked on my door. But even as I write this, the soft, cottony talking Blues angel in my backseat mumbles two words. Muddy. Waters. Yessir, Muddy Waters, my friend.
The Blues are like white truffles. The ones growing in the wild that people use Italian hogs to hunt down. A pound of the suckers sell for like ten million bucks. They are lone, they are mysterious, prized, flavorful, and some people who want to look cool might drop them onto menus or into conversation, but really, they don’t know a truffle from a summertime shroom sprung up after the rain. All that to say: I know about as much about the Blues as I do about truffles. Others know much much more. But I respect the Blues nonetheless, as much for its rarity as for its mystery.
Muddy Waters is the guy, They say. The Icon, legend, myth almost. The proverbial They say he’s the link between farmtown porch Blues and bigtime recording company Blues. His name is enough, for me at least, but his singing and guitar-playing and overall Bluesyness make him very much a movie-in-waiting. Cadillac Records, a new film starring Beyonce, Adrian Brody, Mos Def, and others, chronicles the move of Blues from the Delta to Chicago. I’m dying to see the movie – I hear Beyonce delivers a breathtaking Etta James, spinning her own "At Last" – and, if for no other reason, I want some background on this Muddy Waters character. And I need to know more about these Blues.
Two falls ago, friends from historic Blues spooktown Clarksdale, hometown of Muddy Waters, took me to Helena, Arkansas to the King Biscuit Festival (since renamed). We watched a man named Super Chicken, who kept yelling "Somebody shoot dat thing!" and who was having a personal carnival on stage with his homemade guit-boxes. At some point after midnight, I wandered off to a side street downtown, a pretty deserted place, even during the festival weekend. On one quiet corner, a man was singing into a mic, alone except for a small white guy sitting and playing electric guitar, almost unnoticeable. This singer looked like a drifter, dirty clothes, bent up mesh hat, aged teeth. And he had the largest mouth I’d ever seen. It was a bit weird. But. But. His voice. Good God. It sounded – and I am really saying this the only way I know how – it sounded like he’d swallowed a 1920’s radio. It grizzled, warbled, shook, and died off, then it hounded back up the hill again. I can see the drifter right now thinking about the scene. People were entranced by the man.
I think about that guy when I think about Muddy Waters. I imagine a Mississippi when guys like that could be found in every little town, where juke joints popped up like barber shops and Blues music hung around like smoke. At least I hope that’s what it was like.
Cadillac Records trailer
Solomon Burke singing "How I Got to Memphis" live
Eric Clapton on Muddy Waters