The Well-Tempered Songbook: #50 – Mannish Boy, Muddy Waters (The Last Waltz)


Muddy Waters

And every time I play it… the same roosters skidding across the roofs of tin shacks, the same moss-gurgling pools of testosterone bubbling up in the bayou, the same thrashing moonshine alligators, the same women stumbling through the burning corn, tearing their cotton dresses and chasing Waters’ unstoppable, slow-moving, black locomotive.

I’m a man spelled M, A, child, N… 

No B, O, child, Y.

When Robbie Robertson asked Muddy Waters to participate in the filmed concert that was to become The Last Waltz, Muddy Waters agreed with the condition that Waters would bring his own rhythm section to back him. Robertson had explained during the negotiations that the idea of the concert was that The Band was, well, the band for the night and they’d be the ones backing the artists. Muddy understood all that, but he didn’t trust the single repeating measure of Mannish Boy to anyone but his own crew – a five-note riff repeated exactly eighty-four times in the song, a lick so simple you could learn it your second week of playing guitar.

In the end The Band was permitted to play along. Robby Robertson and his friends could ride his locomotive, but they sure weren’t going to drive it.

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 Oooooooooh, yeah. Oooh, yeah…

Everything gonna be alright this morning…

Ooooh, yeah.

And then Muddy Waters lets loose The Sound that gives birth to an entire universe of rock and roll every time it is played.

If you own the recording of Mannish Boy from The Last Waltz, you’ll hear it at the :30 second mark. (The linked version above starts with it, but almost criminally robs the set-up call and response that precedes it.) The Sound is a kind of rodeo-gate whoa that unleashes the Beast. If you don’t get that sound right, then you don’t get the floor-pounding, china-rattling stomp that follows it eighty-four identical times afterwards. Waters knew The Sound and the five note universal pulse that followed could no more be created by a skinny Canadian bluesman and his pals than the Lord Brahma could entrust the Om that created the universe to earnest, middle-aged ladies in a yoga class.

I have been playing this song – and imitating that whoa – for thirty years now. The Sound and the stop-time riff that follows have within them the complete DNA of rock and roll. The universe in a single measure. And every time I play it the same great doors of the same locomotive roundhouse rotate and open. There’s the same ground-trembling quake from the bass drum, the same fist-sized stones jumping up and down on the train tracks, the same bull hoofs crashing on the stable floor, the same horizon clouds crackling with heat lightning, the same roosters skidding across the roofs of tin shacks, the same moss-gurgling pools of testosterone bubbling up in the bayou, the same thrashing moonshine alligators, the same women stumbling through the burning corn, tearing their cotton dresses and chasing Waters’ unstoppable, slow-moving, black locomotive.

At #50: Mannish Boy, the hymn to masculinity.

<– #49 – Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John Lennon

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