I came to believe this contrary view was mine and mine alone until one night I had a beer in a St. Paul bar with Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Wilson shared my sentiments, believing that critics long ago gave Johnson a blank check. I asked him why.
"Because," said Wilson, "those critics are white."
Wilson was right, but for reasons that have nothing to do with reverse discrimination. Somewhere along the line, Johnson--along with other musical dinosaurs--was laid claim to by heady academics and former bong-jockeys such as Greil Marcus. These eggheads mapped out a musical family tree, telling us who mattered most. Meanwhile, other equally significant voices got lost in the dust.
Which is what makes Robert Gordon's new biography of blues giant Muddy Waters so refreshing. It is completely absent of the pushy, voice-on-high attitude that often passes for musical analysis or cultural appraisal.
Instead, Gordon--a native son of Memphis who has an obvious love for the region--tells a straightforward story of a musical giant. More accurately, he gives the people who were there--Waters' children, women and colleagues--room to tell the story as they remember it. Or as they best remember it. Keith Richards' burned-out cerebrum contributes a tale of his first encounter with Waters at the famed Chess Studios in Chicago that others find laughable.
But either way, it makes for a great story.
Waters was born dirt-poor to a Mississippi sharecropper's family. He worked harder than most people care to imagine while the sun was up and then he prowled to countryside at night singing in juke joints. The blues provided a little extra money and a means to meet women. (Which, Gordon points out, was a lifelong priority for the Mannish Boy.) But, like so many others who struggled south of the Mason Dixon line, Waters headed north to the promise that Chicago offered after World War II. Except he brought his guitar along and changed the sound of American music. "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Rollin' Stone" and "She's Nineteen Years Old" are just a few of titles he recorded that helped jolt 1950s music fans out of their Perry Como-induced coma.
At times Gordon gets carried away. He writes, for instance, that Waters' grandmother may have named the lad "Muddy" because she feared the dangerous river current near her home and "by claiming the Mississippi's cruel and divine identity for this child she would somehow neuter its power."
If you say so.
Far more compelling--and less flowery--are the comments delivered by Waters' family and friends. Jimmie Rogers, for instance, remembers harmonica-dynamo Little Walter as a "little squirrel-faced boy." Muddy himself flashes a thick wad of pocket money to a Brit journalist who asks the bluesman why he no longer sings in the same mournful way he used to when he worked the land as a sharecropper. And another Delta old timer offers up a simple observation that the beauty of the old Delta music was not so much in the lyrics--since many of its practitioners were illiterate--but rather in the feel that they created with their sparse, eerie sounds.
That sort of insight would escape most academics who would rather draw diagrams.