Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied

Illustration by Courtney Spencer

This article appears in the May/June 2015 “Blues Issue,” now available on newsstands. 

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“Well the blues had a baby and they named him rock and roll.”

So sang Muddy Waters on his 1977 album Hard Again. Produced by the late blues guitar icon Johnny Winter, this album was recorded after authentic blues acts took a back seat to young white bands that played Waters-influenced blues-rock. The Rolling Stones, for instance – who always tipped their hats to the master – made more money than Waters probably ever imagined by performing his songs, many written by Willie Dixon, and adding the rock and roll sensibilities of his Chess Records stablemate, Chuck Berry. 

McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, who had played the blues for years in the Mississippi Delta, was tracked down and recorded in the early 1940s by musicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax. The experience inspired Waters to head north to Chicago to find opportunity in the blues world. The blues wasn’t exactly a new thing in Chicago. But Waters took it to a whole new level with a bigass dose of testosterone, a cranked-up electric guitar (eventually a Telecaster when Fender started producing them), and a killer band that featured harp wunderkind Little Walter.

Before copyright laws, performing rights organizations and lawyers came to the forefront of the music industry, blues artists had long written songs based on previously recorded ideas, with lines sometimes called “floating lyrics” or “maverick stanzas” that sounded familiar because they’d already been used. In 1948 Waters got his first taste of major success with the single “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Guitarist Bob Margolin, who played in Waters’ band from 1973 to 1980, knows as much as anyone alive about Waters and his music, and cites “I Can’t Be Satisfied” as one of those derivative songs.  

“‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ was a signature hit, but the lyrics are phrases from older songs [of Waters and other artists] just pasted together,” Margolin said. “The verses aren’t all on the same subject and don’t tell a story. Yet it’s many people’s favorite Muddy song. Including mine.” In the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, Waters’ character is shown traveling to promote the record at radio stations in the South over the background of the song: 

Well I’m goin’ away to leave
Won’t be back no more
Goin’ back down south, child
Don’t you want to go?
Woman I’m troubled, I be all worried in mind
Well baby I just can’t be satisfied
And I just can’t keep from cryin’

This song is somewhat involved compared to Waters’ blues numbers that follow the popular AAB format. Not to be confused with the “commercial” songwriting form of ABAB (verse-chorus-verse-chorus), the AAB blues format means that the first line of a verse is repeated as the second line, and the third line wraps it up. An example of AAB is Waters’ song “Champagne And Reefer:”

Yeah bring me champagne when I’m thirsty
Bring me reefer when I want to get high
Yeah bring me champagne when I’m thirsty
Bring me reefer when I want to get high
Well you know when I’m lonely bring my woman
Set her right down here by my side

Waters was already an accomplished blues singer when he arrived in Chicago, but comparing his voice in the late 1940s to his vocals on songs he cut a few years later, like “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” show a singer whose voice had matured, deepened, and become an authoritative instrument that white teenagers like Elvis wanted to emulate and women wanted to hear whisper in their ears. And his guitar work inspired a generation of six-stringers from Winter to Hendrix to Clapton.

According to Bob Margolin, one song was special for Waters among the scores of tunes in his repertoire. “Once Muddy was asked, ‘Of the songs you wrote, which is your favorite?’ His answer was ‘Screamin’ And Cryin’ – not a big hit but as deep as any blues he ever recorded.” 

Screamin’ and cryin’, thinkin’ ‘bout my past life to gone
Screamin’ and cryin’, thinkin’ ‘bout my past life to gone
Well you know, I used to have a sweet little mother
You know I had such a happy home

Screamin’ and cryin’, thinkin’ about the time I’ve been
Screamin’ and cryin’, thinkin’ about the time I’ve been
Well you know, I used to have seven wives well you know, I had twenty girlfriends

Screamin’ and cryin’, wonderin’ where my people gone
Screamin’ and cryin’, wonderin’ where my people gone
Well you know, I feel my poor self sinkin’ down
Well you know, I can’t last very long

Deep, indeed. Maybe deeper than any blues will be again.

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