Willie Dixon and Folklore

WillieDixon_09-25-12_CI1060

As mentioned in my previous post, Willie Dixon liked to cater his songwriting to the demographic that he is writing for.  One way in which he did that was by including references to folk beliefs in his songs.  There was a certain appeal of black folk beliefs that people with down-home Southern roots could relate to.  Furthermore, Dixon believed that those who sang the blues were preachers, as well as musicians, therefore elements of the supernatural were extremely likely to play into the lyrics of WIllie’s songs.

Willie Dixon would include topics such as numerology, voodoo, and religion in the lyrics of his songs.  In “Hoochie Coochie Man” he references the number seven continuously.  “On the seventh hour, on the seventh day, on the seventh month the seven doctors say,” croons Muddy Waters on this Dixon composed tune.  This number is significant in Christian theology due the seven days in a week, or the seven days of creationism, and the seven deadly sins.  The song “Ain’t Superstitious”, performed by Howlin’ Wolf, spends the entire duration of the song listing different superstitions, such as “black cat just cross my trail”.

silhouette_of_a_cat_with_and_arched_back_0515-0909-1716-2514_SMU

The Versatility of Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon (collection de Pete Welding)

Willie Dixon was the primary songwriter for Chess Records in the 1950s.  He wrote for all of Chess’ big stars, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter.  When choosing a song for a performer to record or perform he did one of two things.  Willie Dixon would either choose a song for the artist out of his large stock of prewritten songs, or he would write a song on the spot for a particular artist.

Both of these methods of picking the perfect song took a lot of consideration on the part of Willie.  Many factors went into choosing what song would be appropriate for which artist.  One important element when choosing the song, or writing the song, was the appearance of the performer, or the persona which they put on while giving a show.  Something as seemingly trivial as a hairstyle or a signature dance move could lead WIllie to compose something different for an artist in order to fit their image.

Another thing that WIllie took into account while writing songs was an artist’s commercial history.  If an artist had had a big hit, then it is likely that Willie’s next song for them would be similar in style to that of their hit.  Willie also took into account the demographic that was primarily buying the music.  The age, gender and race of an artist’s fans was included in the thought process of writing a new song, so that the tune was sure to appeal to them.

Because of the wide variety of artists that Willie had to write for, he became proficient in writing in many different styles of music.  He was able to use regular forms and to modify forms.  He was able to write Tin Pan Alley, Jump blues, and Doo Wop.  He was also able to write both blues and pop songs.  This versatility lead Dixon to the top of the music industry, leading him to write some of the most influential songs of the century.

The Unclarity of Muddy Waters

muddy-waters1

Where did Muddy Waters come from?  That, though it seems simple enough, is a difficult question to answer.  Everything about his early days is unclear, from his lineage to the very day of his birth.  Things that seem like simple, basic facts to those of us living in today’s world, were parts of Muddy Waters identity that he never knew or that he changed so frequently that it was difficult to know if when was lying and when he was telling the truth.

Muddy Water’s mother went by “Berta”, and though it was probably a nickname, it is unknown what her full name was.  She was born sometime between 1893 and 1901, but the exact year is unknown.  She was in her teens when she became pregnant with Muddy, but it is hard to know exactly when.  At this time in the South there were no birth certificates issued when a baby was born, instead the family recorded the information of the date of birth and the name of the baby in the family Bible.  Because of this, it is difficult to find the exact birthdays of most people in Muddy Waters’ life.  There is also nothing documenting Berta’s death, but we do know that she died at a fairly young age.  Muddy was raised by his Grandmother, Della Grant.  The identity of Muddy’s father, as it often was in those days, is unknown, even to this day.

Muddy Waters’ also had inconsistent records concerning his age, however he used this to his advantage by changing the year of his birth just as he pleased.  Most sources give his date of birth to be April 4, 1913.  This date was the one submitted on his Social Security card application from the 1940s.  However, on his gravestone the date reads 1915.  This may have been an attempt by Muddy to appear younger than he was in order to more effectively cut into the music industry.

watersmuddy2

Muddy Waters gravestone, complete with the (probably) incorrect birth year is seen above.  His given name was “McKinley Morganfield”, however he was named Muddy Waters by his grandmother due to the mischief in the mud that he would get into as a little kid.

The Rise of the Chess Brothers

Photo of Leonard ChessPhoto of Phil Chess

Leonard and Phil Chess (pictured above) were two poor, Polish immigrant brothers who lived in Chicago in the 1940s.  They learned how to run a business while they worked in their father’s junkyard.  Though they were of a low class they had the ambition, drive, and work ethic to work their way to the top.

Cut Rate Liquor2

After Phil and Leonard got out of the junkyard business they opened up a liquor shop called “Cut Rate Liquor”.  People would congregate in the store and discuss the gigs they were playing at and the night clubs that they were going to.  Furthermore, the store was located in a black neighborhood, which got them acquainted with a new type of music called the blues.  While working at this store, the brothers heard a about a club going up for sale called the Macomba Lounge.

Macombaad

The Macomba Lounge was the start of the music business for the Chess brothers.  It was located in the same neighborhood as their liquor store had been and, because it stayed open so late, it tended to attract all sorts of shady people.  Phil was in the armed forces at this time, but when he returned he joined Leonard in running the club.  Unfortunately, in 1950 the club mysteriously burnt down.

aristocrat2001a

While Phil and Leonard were running the Macomba Lounge they also became involved with work for a record company called Aristocrat Records, owned by Evelyn and Charles Aron.  Leonard steadily bought up the company, and when the couple got a divorce he was finally able to gain possession of the whole organization.  The brand released records until 1951,  when it turned into Chess Records.

3878906408_aa9a53b0a0_b

Paving the Way to Blues

Before blues music was accepted into the mainstream society other genres had to pave the way.  In the 1920s and 1930s the other main genres of popular music were jazz, “tin pan alley” or American standards, and big band music.

lSinatra, Frank_01

 

“Tin Pan Alley” music was the music that eventually became known as the American standards.  This music was the most mainstream during the mid-century.  In this genre artists would constantly cover each others songs, eventually creating the American songbook, a collection of original American songs recorded and rerecorded over and over again by singers of the early 20th century, such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

Panorama0001

 

Big Bands were, appropriately, huge ensembles.  They were comprised of both a horns section and a rhythm section.  The rhythm section included an upright bass, a guitar, a piano, and drums.  The backbone of the horn section was trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, however other brass, such as tubas, would occasionally be included also.  All together a Big Band included an average of about 16 people.  Because of their large numbers, Big Bands did very little improvisation, sticking to known songs and sheet music and playing primarily swing music.

url-2

 

Jazz music was similar to big band music in instrumentation, however the numbers of the band were drastically cut down.  Additionally, this genre relied heavily on spontaneous improvisation on the part of both the instruments and the vocalist.  Singers would frequently mimic the sound of the saxophone with their voice.  While doing this singers would say nonsense words, a technique known as scatting.

Music culture is intricately intertwined, with different types of music gaining inspiration across the borders of genre, race, and class, therefore blues music contains elements of all of the above genres, and it would have been impossible for blues to break into the music industry without these genres coming first.