“Rolling Stone” is probably the most iconic term in the history of Rock and Roll. Of course, we have the magazine, but before that we have perhaps the greatest sneer in rock history, Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone; and before that, the band, The Rolling Stones; but first, it was a Muddy Waters song. Each occurrence of this term comes from the Waters song.
Running at just 3:05, Rollin’ Stone (and yes, it is significant that the “g” is replaced by an apostrophe; the tight, compressed taughtness of the chords seem to explain this nicely) is a dangerous song. Recorded in February 1950 in Chicago–before either of my parents were born–it sounds plenty fresh today. I realize that is a term fraught with cliche, but how else can you explain a song that, like Sandburg, comes “on little cat feet”; but instead of “looking over harbor and city”, it is coming in your daughter’s window as she is working to push the sheets aside for her new bedmate. Imagine, with me, my grandparents or your grandparents or parents of this era hearing this song and wondering if they had locked each of their doors and windows tight. Racism, once a thinly veiled secret, could be–and would have been, were this not race music–stoked by Waters’ guitar, his strong voice, the way he seems haunched over the microphone, shirt half buttoned, singing out of the side of his mouth as if the other part of the truth was hidden by his big cheeks. America didn’t want to know what that other truth was until it came in the more palatable form of Elvis Presley; when Presley’s records were played on Memphis radio, the DJ made sure to inform the audience that this boy was white, and a nice white boy at that. However, I don’t know if Elvis could ever have the power of Muddy Waters or my personal favorite Delta bluesman, Son House.
Son House’s voice is all the biography you will need. Steeped, like Presley, in the tradition of gospel, it also has plenty of sex and sweet talk in it, something that will put you on edge the moment his falsetto usurps the rhythm of songs such as “Louise McGee”. An equal to his voice, his slide travels down the neck of the guitar like the same Muddy menace on little cat feet, so unbelievably tight and with tension–a tension you would always think is predictable, but it isn’t; and that is the Blues to me: deep, pain filled tension that releases at just the right time, in either the voice or the catch and tremble of the guitar. And this is even more spooky when it is an accoustic guitar. Johnny Lang or Kenny Wayne Sheppard seem banal because they are; they don’t have this mystery nor this danger; comparatively, they feel like your aunt singing a hymn monotone on Christmas eve, all glazed over eyes with half spiritual fear in her brow.
Son House’s version of “Preachin’ Blues”–which I consider almost superior to Robert Johnson’s amped up “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”–is a somewhat slow dirge that travels all over House’s pallette. He growls words like “church” and “pulpit”; they begin life at the back of his throat and are caught there for a split second, adding to the tension, before fighting out past his teeth and the words are spit into the microphone, leading his baritone to make harmony with the tense treble of his slide guitar.
I am certainly not a blues historian, nor am I well versed in a lot of the musical form, but I can tell you that very few things I’ve ever heard have ever felt or sounded this true. I listen to them again and again, and as I stand, I feel their power pulling me up on my toes, my eyes squinting and my teeth grinding, the front of my mind exploding, its own big bang, pretending I can understand the horrifying injustice that could create such true music, letting the music prioritize my problems and set them into one long line to be swept into the dust bin of my memory; it’s tight and it’s elastic and it’s history that truly cannot conform.