I’m talking about the version on Scorsese’s album, just so we’re on the same page. The kind of Willie Dixon song that makes you cringe and ask yourself what it’s going to take for you to wise up and buy you some Willie Dixon.
Some folks don’t care for Muddy Waters and, I have to say, it breaks my heart. I mean, I guess I can understand why you’d not like a great deal of Muddy Waters music, but this song? How can you be alive and breathing and not love this song?
Let’s start with how the song starts, not with a guitar, as you might expect from a good blues song, but with a piano, in an octave that toys more with a Vaudeville tack piano sound than the noises one might expect to come from a man trying to seduce a woman. It tumbles down into the honk of the harmonica, only to be answered by the sweet sound of an upright bass. A drummer in the background doesn’t so much keep time as to come behind time with a brush and sweep up the rhythm to make room for the next notes.
This happens three times (as it should in a twelve bar blues) before Morganfield starts to sing. The way he hits that “I,” to me, always sounds like he might have just about been willing to sing some other song, maybe about birds, or puppies, when the woman he wants just walked into the room, on the arm of another man. There’s an urgency to it. And “don’t” is softer, more emphasis on the “d” almost none on the “n’t” so that you lean forward to hear him and are hit hard with the “want.” Then, we hear from the guitar, a sharp dissonance that covers the “you,” which serves to both mask and draw attention to it.
But look how the song teaches you how to move to it. Twelve bars at the beginning, “come closer, come closer, come closer” and then the “I” is loud enough to send you back; the “don’t” brings you in again; the “want” sends you back and the “you” serves, I think, as a pause to the movement. You want to move away because of the sharp note from the guitar, but you have to move in to hear what he doesn’t want–in effect, you don’t move at all. And then “be no slave” comes out so smooth, of course, any woman attracted to men is going to come closer.
That’s all in the first fourteen seconds.
Then, let’s skip ahead to 1:43, when the song switches from what the singer wants to what the woman is like. Everything in the song switches gears to give you an idea of her. Where as we have been listening to a blues song, now, all of a sudden, the tempo changes and it’s like we’re in a burlesque. We have been in the mode of pure longing (I mean, dang, listen to that harmonica solo), but now, here she is, and the mood of the song changes. “I can tell by the way you”–each word is held just a little long, as if the singer can’t help but linger over this moment when they are actually in the same room together and he’s watching her. He has her there in front of him and though he’s not doing with her what he’d like to be doing, at least he’s sharing a moment with her.
It almost doesn’t matter what she’s doing. He seems more interested in the activities she’s participating in, just for their percussive value, than for what they say about her. He just wants to hurry though them and get back to talking about him and her together.
Does he end up fucking her? How could he not?
There’s not a hint of doubt in his voice and what he’s offering? To take her out of her mundane life, where she is stuck doing the dishes and working all day and doing laundry and keeping a home, and to pull her so close to him that she can feel the lub dub of the drum in time with the lub dub of his heart? And once he’s professed his intentions to the whole damn audience?
Who could resist that?
Plus, there’s something about the echo-y-ness of the harmonica that reminds me of the smell of rain and storms in the distance. I don’t know if that matters or not.