American Icons: Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon performing in Cary, Illinois in 1979. Photo by Len Carlson via Wikipedia. Reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

Known as The Father of the Blues for the thick songbook of blues classics he wrote, and the countless records on which he played bass and produced, Willie Dixon was happy to shine a positive light on the source of these blues. 

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“All blues are happy blues,” he said, in the den of his capacious Glendale home. Since so many of his songs were so perfectly suited to so many great singers, people rarely realized that he was the man behind the mojo. But a whole host of blues and rock artists gained style and definition by doing Willie’s songs: Howlin’ Wolf was “Evil” as Muddy Waters was the “Hoochie Coochie Man” as Jim Morrison was the “Back Door Man” and Mose Allison the “Seventh Son.” Eric Clapton bent “Spoonful” into an anthem for Cream, while The Rolling Stones made “Little Red Rooster” their own, and many others, such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Etta James, all had major hits with Willie’s songs, and formed the template of rock and roll.

Born in Vicksburg, Tennessee, on July 1, 1915, when slavery was still a recent memory, he wrote his first songs songs as a teen and sold the sheet music to local bands. The guitarist “Baby Doo” Caston gave him his first instrument, a handmade one-string tin-can bass. They formed a group, The Five Breezes, but those breezes dissolved in 1941 when Willie refused the draft as a conscientious objector, and served a year in jail.

Upon his release from jail he started a new band, the The Four Jumps of Jive. While jamming with them, the Chess Brothers recognized his prodigious talent, and hired him as a bassman. Soon he was a mainstay at Chess Records in his sweet home Chicago, on bass, writing songs and producing records. He quickly began scoring hits with the full roster of Chess artists, beginning with Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

For all this work and success, Willie was paid $100 a week, hardly enough to support his ever-expanding family, and received a tiny fraction of the royalties he should have earned. But his fortunes shifted in the sixties, when British rock bands such as The Yardbirds and The Stones began recording his songs. He officially left Chess in 1971. Many of the classic recordings he made there, including those in which he was the main artist, can be found on the Willie Dixon Chess Box Set, the first boxed set of its kind to honor a legendary songwriter.  He died in 1992, a year after our interview. 

It was the facts that mattered more to him than anything else. He wanted people to understand the facts about the blues, that they encompass all of life, not just the down side. 

“The blues came from work songs,” Willie said. “They used to not let slaves sing, they wouldn’t let them talk, they wouldn’t let them beat on the drums or tap on wood or nothing because it felt like they could pass messages to each other. But when they found out that the slaves could chant songs and work in time, the bosses decided to let them go. Eventually the slaves found out they could pass messages with these songs. They were singing about going home: ‘If I never see you no more, I’ll meet you on the other shore.’ In singing these songs they converted the idea that you ain’t going to Africa, you’re going to heaven when you die. [The bosses] didn’t know that the black man was singing about the facts of life. The blues consist of the past, the present and the hopeful future.”

Willie stressed that the form of the blues was unbound by strictures. “People always tried to do the blues like they did black people,” he said. “They tried to put them in a condition where they couldn’t move. The world tried to say the blues is only 12-bar music and can’t go no further, but that’s a lie. Today we can make the blues in any amount. You can make it an opera, if you want to. It could last all day, as long as it tells the truth. That’s the way the blues are today. People tried to brand the blues as one thing like they tried to brand black people as one thing. The world is too wise for that today.”

“Hoochie Coochie Man” came from people’s belief “in mystic things,” he said. “They called them ‘hoodoo folk or voodoo men or hoochie-coochie men.’” “Seventh Son” reflected his own origins, the seventh child born on the 7th day of the 7th month. “’The Seventh Son is part of the scriptures,” he said. Asked if he had a preference for songs of his recorded by the Stones, Doors and Cream, he admitted he didn’t know which was which. But he loved Mose Allison’s “Seventh Son.” 

He stressed many times that blues aren’t only about sorrow. “In fact, all blues are happy blues,” he said. “All blues are the facts. The facts are the truth. Most people can’t understand that. Of course, they’ve been brainwashed into believing that it’s got to be down or it wouldn’t be blues. But it’s not so.” 

Asked if he had a favorite song, he said, “The newest one, that says, ‘It don’t make sense, you can’t make peace.’ The world has made everything else but not peace. And the reason is evil, ignorance and stupidity. I have songs that explain all these facts. And that’s the blues.” 

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