Thursday, October 15, 2009

The First Time I Met The Blues

By Jim Webb

When I was in the eighth grade at Cecelia Snyder Middle School in 1971 we had a substitute one day for our regular science teacher Mr. Moser. Science class was the first period after the lunch break, and with time to kill I decided to head there early. I wandered into an empty classroom and sat down at my seat. Pretty soon everybody else would start to casually file in, just another routine in a school day that had plenty of them to spare. As I sat in my chair I glanced up at the blackboard, and a phrase was written in the middle of it.

"When a man is down, the Blues are his best friend." - Muddy Waters

I read it a couple of times, but had no idea why it was up there, and watched as a few classmates started to stream in. The substitute teacher finally made his appearance as an ordinary looking, middle-aged white guy with a beard. Most subs fall into two types, the ones who want to continue the lesson plan as if they were the regular teacher, or they just give everyone a free study hall to due anything they want, as long as it stays quiet. He said he wasn’t comfortable doing the science work left for us, and instead we would have a discussion. After he read the quote that had been written behind him in chalk, he asked if anyone had ever heard of Muddy Waters. No one responded, so he went into a brief history of the blues, and eventually he even got a few kids to ask some questions. Somebody asked if Muddy was his real name, and that set off another long story about how musicians sometimes had nicknames and different performing names, turns out Muddys actual name was McKinley Morganfield. Old stories and songs from long ago, the whole thing sounded like they could have known Huckleberry Finn. At thirteen years old, this blues thing didn’t seem too exciting. The whole conversation was unusual, but subs sometimes acted a little weird, and the hour seemed to go by quickly with everyone bolting the room as soon as the ending bell rang.

In September of 1975, I went to an Allman Brothers concert at The Spectrum arena in Philadelphia and the opening act was Muddy Waters. It was a sold out concert, so there was about 18,000 people crammed into this big airplane hanger of a building. Muddy sat on a stool near the front of the stage while his band was behind him, and played for about thirty minutes. The Allman Brothers were a blues – rock band, so the crowd treated Muddy with respect. Polite applause after each number, but everyone was there to get crazy with some Southern Rock a little later. For the last song of his set, Muddy got off the stool and really leaned into a tune called, Got My Mojo Working. The crowd started to catch fire as this legendary old man of the Blues gyrated across the stage, barking out words, he was gonna show that big rock crowd he still had some gas left in the tank. He gave a quick wave to the crowd, and left to a loud ovation.

The seventies came and went, as did most of the punk and new wave bands that I religiously followed. Never missed a local concert by The Clash, or The Ramones, but by 1982 that whole scene was getting a little stale to me. Fashion bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club were everywhere; it was time to go in a different direction. Between 1983 and 1987, I headed straight for the Blues. Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Otis Rush, and John Lee Hooker are just some of the names we saw. After Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues All-Stars played at The Chestnut Cabaret we went backstage to say hello. You could do that after a blues gig, no heavy security or a big entourage to stop you. Willie was one of the all-time great Blues songwriters that also played bass and had written numerous hits in the ‘50’s like Little Red Rooster, Hoochie Coochie Man, Spoonful, and I Just Want to Make Love to You. He was a huge influence on The Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and hundreds of other bands. Willie was a big man, well over six feet tall, but he was still carrying around a lot of extra weight. The sweat was dripping off him; his clothes were soaked with perspiration from just escaping the hot stage lights. He was close to seventy years old, tired from still pulling one nighters all across the country, but he greeted us like we were old cousins from Chicago. With a smile on his face he said,” How ya doin’ fellas, how was it.” I was fumbling around for words; did I just hear Willie Dixon ask me how he played? “You sounded great,” was all I said. There were a hundred questions racing through my mind that I wanted to ask him; about songs he wrote, and old Bluesmen that he’d played with. He looked content sitting there resting on an old wooden chair, but he also appeared worn down. The questions I had ready to fire at him suddenly didn’t seem very important. My friend and I settled for an autograph on a scrap of paper, we shook Willie’s hand and left.

When a man is down, the Blues are his best friend. I had no idea what that meant as a thirteen year old. Muddy and Willie were both African-Americans, born in Mississippi at a time when the color of your skin determined what kind of life you would lead. Growing up in the 1920’s outside of Vicksburg and Clarksdale, they knew what it meant to be down. Almost everything, and as far as they could see was down. They didn’t have any rich relatives with good paying jobs; most of their kin scratched out a living working the soil all day long, they called it sharecropping. When things seemed like they just couldn’t get any harder, music became a way out of the madness for them. Muddy Waters and his good friend Willie Dixon passed away many years ago. They left behind a lot of great music, but more importantly, inside the songs they left us their hard earned truths.
-Jim Webb

1 comment:

Joanne Casey said...

Stand-in teachers are always a bit different. I remember one we had for an Irish class. She repeated the same phrase for the entire class, "Cade marta in aimsir inniu?" (in a Belfast accent). What is the weather like today?

Useless phrase, it always rains.

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