Book Review: Phases and Stages
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Aug. 23, 2002
Can't Be Satisfied The Life & Times of Muddy Watersby Robert Gordon
Little, Brown, 408 pp., $25.95
The Voice of the Blues Classic Interviews from Living Blues MagazineEdited by Jim O'Neal & Amy Van Singel
Routledge, 427 pp., $25 (paper)
Now that Alan Lomax has died, another link to Muddy Waters has been washed away. That Robert Gordon, a former contributor to this paper, shifts credit for Waters' "discovery" from the Austin-born Library of Congress folklorist to John Work III, a professor at Nashville's prestigious black Fisk University who sought government funding for field recordings, is just one of Can't Be Satisfied The Life & Times of Muddy Waters many gratifications. As Gordon, author of 1995's lively It Came From Memphis and the forthcoming The Elvis Treasures, acknowledges in a wealth of post-narrative notes (100 pages of appendices, lists, guides, and notes), the great blues buddha was 15 years dead when Gordon picked up the scent. Definitive documentation is missing at every point of the Mississippi bluesman's vigorous legend, but the author's deliberate backtracking harvests a truly American tale in the form of Waters' first extensive biography. From Deep South sharecropper to Chicago shredder, Waters and the Cherokee blood in those high, ruby cheeks of his indeed gather no moss in transforming acoustic blues to electric boogaloo. Chess Records, the house that built (and conversely was built by) Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, plays stage to most of Can't Be Satisfied, and in doing so, the book becomes as much a history of post-war blues as it is document of the "Hoochie Coochie Man" himself. A tight, economic style defines Gordon's prose, and what it occasionally misses in the flourishing elegance of peer/source Peter Guralnick, it makes up for with a constant forward rhythm not unlike its subject's songs. That said, for every LP's worth of gems like "the harmonica is a breath away from the soul of a man," there's a clunker like, "that blew a hole in his swiss cheese." Overall, Gordon's is a game, inventive pen.
One of his sources, Living Blues Magazine, has spun off its own historical preserve in The Voice of the Blues, 12 interviews with blue bloods such as Waters, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Freddie King. Most Q&As reach the 50-page range, their academic detailing usually balanced out by the undiluted nature of the format. More essays along the line of the volume's moving tribute to Sleepy John Estes would have been welcome, but not in favor of priceless sit-downs with Walker and Reed, or the only Q&A on record with a breath away from the blues, Little Walter.
"This dirt has meaning," concludes Gordon in Can't Be Satisfied, and like The Voice of the Blues, it stakes its claim.