“It scared the living daylights out of me”

Muddy Waters_05Anger. Anguish. Cries of desperation. The screams echo around uselessly in the dark confines of utter despair. Nobody can hear you. Squashed, subdued, trodden over, we are but black worms slithering across the mud. The dirty huts are home to rapists: family friends raping daughters, uncles raping nieces, drunken fathers raping daughters. A hollow, senseless, desperate violence. Violence carried out in the quagmire, because there’s nothing else on the riverbanks of the Mississippi: only slimy, slippery mud, dark as night. Oh well, of course. Alligators, too: there’s no end to the nasty surprises.

Down to the Mississippi. A dark and filthy hut surrounded by wretched poverty. This is where Muddy is brought up, the most wretched and miserable of them all. No mother, no father, just his grandmother. Muddy Waters, she calls him, filching the name from the dark river passing by. Sultry and slow waters which beat to the rhythm of blues. Delta blues.
Days go by, the boy grows up in the muddy waters. Swampy and slimy they ebb by like time itself, eternal and always the same. A fragile hold on life, quick to give way to the quicksand you’re standing on. Escape. Far away. As soon as possible.

Our Muddy lives with others on the plantation. Other black slaves, that is, gathering cotton for the rich, white men. “If you were born surrounded by misery, you’ll die surrounded by it” buzz the insects sticking to his sweaty skin. Muddy disagrees. His dreams are more than this desolate life. He’s an artist at heart and doesn’t want to end like those other, desperate slaves. He’s a talented boy with big dreams. He’s got music in him He saves some money, buys a guitar. This is the beginning of the story of Chicago’s blues king.

He plays on the streets, between huts. His voice is piercing and full of sorrow. Muddy is suffering: his young bride has just run away. He wants a son. And Muddy becomes a father. But the mother is not his wife, just another plantation girl. A never-ending tragedy.

Muddy abandons the plantations and the third woman he marries. His destination? The big wide stretches of Chicago, with its lights and sounds. He’s got music in his bones and, although he may not know it, the world is waiting for him. His acoustic guitar, too feeble to surmount the cacophony of the smoke-tinged and sticky clubs, is exchanged for an electric guitar. A necessity, not an artistic choice.
A band is born, playing a devastating sound: new, hard, pure. A story of those years of slavery. A sound which rings true and played as loud as possible. A devilish tune, where blues segues into rock n’ roll.
Muddy goes to England, but his music is too wild for a public used to gentle notes and sugarcoated lyrics. He’s from another planet. Conformists are not ready for him. His fellow musicians are shocked: the Rolling Stones adapt one of his songs, “Satisfaction”. Instant, worldwide success follows. Great guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page see in Muddy a father figure. Jimi Hendrix is impressed by the wild energy of the blues man: “It scared the living daylights out of me”.
B.B. King said, “Years will go by before the majority of people understands what a momentous change he brought about to the history of American music”.

Artists who were inspired by him became famous and billionaires. Everyone, except Muddy. It doesn’t matter. He’s only interested in music: he changed the history of music in such a momentous way.
But it’s time to go home now, just like the lyrics of so many sorrowful blues songs in the States sing. Home, kneeling down in the same old muddy earth gathering carrots and potatoes.
Home, finding eternal peace on 30 April 1983.

I thought of Muddy when I read about Franco Condè’s passing: another person who was born a musician. Franco, Muddy, Frank, Jimy: I’m sure they’re having a blast up there. And they continue making us happy down here. Thank you, Muddy Water, and thank you, Franco Condè: you being with us has been the biggest “Satisfaction” ever. May God bless you.

Michil Costa

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