Music

Muddy Waters: Muddy Mississippi Waters Live

Barbara Flaska

Muddy Waters

Muddy Mississippi Waters Live

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2003-09-02
UK Release Date: 2003-11-03
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Everybody's got a favorite bluesman story. My current favorite about Muddy Waters is set far in the distant past, just slightly after the time when he was living and working on the Mississippi plantation he'd always called home, running a still and a "juke joint" where he'd put his own copy of the record he'd recorded for the Library of Congress on a record player to entertain the people who dropped in. That's a good story, but my favorite is placed in time a few years later than that, after he'd argued with the plantation overseer and he'd had enough and finally had to leave. This happened after he headed up north to Chicago and made another record. That's when he stopped into a tavern in Chicago and heard his own music playing on a jukebox in somebody else's place for the very first time. He shoved coin after coin into the slot and sat down at a table to listen, and he played the record over and over again, getting more change from the bartender as he needed it. I imagine him amazed, exuberant, and generally acting like he never wanted the experience to end.

That's a little like how I felt when I first heard that Muddy Waters … Muddy Waters!! … had his own LP. An LP (and only people like Frank Sinatra had LPs back then) and on Chess Records!! Put out in the late 1950's, it was simply called The Best of Muddy Waters. And that's precisely and exactly what it was. Imagine, all his best-known songs on one long-playing vinyl album. I knew if I could get my hands on that, I wouldn't have to rely on laying awake all night hoping to hear one of his songs drift across radio airwaves by chance. That album had been released five years prior to my ever having known it existed. I'd even written a letter of inquiry to the Chess Company and received no reply. I was afraid it was out of print by the time I'd come to hear about it. It took me over a year to find that record.

But find it I did and I proceeded to play it to death. I stayed awake all night many nights playing it. I must have listened to that particular Best of easily a thousand times, maybe ten thousand times since and I've never yet tired of it. When I play it these days, I am reminded of different things by certain elements in the songs. My music education and personal history exists there, too: "That -- right there -- that's exactly when I knew Fred Below was the best blues drummer!" Little Walter was so sharp on the harp, he set the measure for whoever followed him into the band.

Yet however great the back-up players were, there was never any question about Muddy Waters's stature for me. He was the greatest. And these were the very songs that Waters would draw from and continue performing for the rest of his long life. So you can guess, can't you, that I believe that everybody who says they love the blues should rightly get into a high state of excitement just hearing the name Muddy Waters?

Released in 1979, Mississippi Muddy Waters Live is a different sort of Muddy Waters record. By the time he recorded this, he was older, more experienced. After decades with the company, he'd left Chess and was recording for Blue Sky, a label he shared with Johnny and Edgar Winter. And he had just been awarded his first Grammy. His stage presence had been sharpened over the years, but he was still performing his well-known songs. I had to warm up to this record, and it is not my favorite Muddy Waters album by a long shot. But I can't in anyway casually regard the opportunity of hearing Muddy Waters play.

The original release was seven tracks on one long-playing record. For this re-release, 12 extra tracks were added to fill out this offering into a double disc item. There's not a bad track among them, but some of the material, like "Deep Down in Florida", can sound a little too easy-going. Like Muddy honored a request from the producers and the young audience by 1978 didn't know it was once a tremendously big deal for a black person just to go to the beach anywhere much less Florida, segregation existing in the sand and surf like everywhere else.

And Muddy, who never ever once had the same lead-in to a song, here onstage with Johnny Winter has two lead-ins exactly the same. Unfortunately, both of them placed one after another in a row because somebody (probably the producer) liked the big sound of that siren-like wail announcing a song. But one of those songs, a slow blues ("where the Soul is", as Waters used to insist) is "Streamline Woman". This is the one that proves Muddy Waters could still show anybody how it should really be done.

Imagine Muddy onstage with some of these players. Muddy, who had persevered for years and undeniably was one of the great blues guitarists, whose records inspired some of these very same guys onstage with him here to want to pick up a guitar in the first place; a man who had worked for years and was acknowledged as the greatest for years before he even got close enough to serious money to hear it existed. And young Johnny Winter, who had major labels competing for him for the privilege of selling his second album, what was recognized would be his monster solo album, receiving a cool million dollars just to sign on the dotted line before he so much as stepped in the studio or set down a note for it in the early '70s. I confess I felt like I was putting up with Winter onstage here trading licks with Muddy, and all his people, too, especially the ones I suspect are his noisy fans in the audience, the ones who yelled "hoo" or "yeah" just as a song was starting. They sound a little more out of it now than they did at the time, like they're going to start shouting "boogie" at any minute. One particular guy in the audience, I recognized the sound of his boozy screech on three, four, five tracks: Loudmouth drunk dude, I have to tell you that you're just ridiculous.

Nonetheless, there are some advantages to this record. On this recording the re-engineering yields crystal clear results and the ability to clearly hear some of Waters's onstage vocal tricks is something to be treasured. The way he squeezes out a staggered long vocal line by pumping the air out of his lower abdomen like it's a concertina. And finally, the art and craft of the master of prestidigitation is revealed. There's no hint there's a furry little creature hidden up the magician's sleeve until the showman decides it's time to pull it out of his hat to amaze the audience, and once the cat is out of the bag, the crowd is stunned into momentary silence.

Muddy's proving he's the man with the real magic here. He launches into an extended guitar solo on "Streamline Woman" that just sounds unbelievably nasty. Sliding and quivering, with a shrill nasally pitch, this raunchy long solo will make your facial muscles react -- your eyes will squint, your lips will pull apart and expose your teeth, and your choppers will clench and snap. As the guitar crescendos to conclusion, the electric squeal sounds exactly like the screech of a naughty little cat in heat and the yowls of a tom flying through the air mid-pounce.

Muddy Waters is one of the greats and I love him dearly. And, yes, anyone who claims to love the blues should start breathing faster just hearing his name. This record, a sentimental favorite as it was one of his last before his departure from this world, though a good job doesn't seem likely to ever replace some of his others as being among my favorites. My favorite is 1957's Best of Muddy Waters. But taken with his Best Of, this can be as good a starting place as anywhere.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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