Muddy Waters, George Thorogood and an iPhone ringtone

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2010

This week, we're gonna talk about the blues, and just one song in particular: "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters.

I was listening to the radio the other day when it came on, and I thought, "DANG. That's a great song. And it's only got one riff all the way through. I could learn that. I bet audiences would really dig that song. They did when Muddy played it. And I'm 21, so it'll be that much cooler and more ironic."

The song is a classic blues boast. It describes the speaker at three different stages in his life, details his prowess with women and asserts that he is a full-grown, natural-born lover's man. Pretty straight-forward, pretty compelling if done correctly. It was originally written by Bo Diddley, but Muddy is the one who made it really popular back in the '50s. It's all based around one riff, a classic rock and blues lick that has been used in countless recordings. Actually, it's the 'Piano Riff' ringtone on an iPhone, and George Thorogood adapted it for 'Bad to the Bone'

"What?! He didn't write that?!"

Nope. The blues is all about borrowing and adaptation; it's an aurally passed-down music tradition, and in it, Thorogood descends from the line of Muddy Waters, among many, many others. Regardless of whether you're listening to "Mannish Boy" or "Bad to the Bone," what makes this song-form work is the repetition of this particular lick on every bar. The song swaggers so hard, it's incredible. Seriously. Go find someone with an iPhone. Listen to it. Make up lyrics and sing them in the breaks. It just works!

"But why?" you may be asking, "Certainly you would agree that one lick being repeated every four beats gets really annoying after a short time. We've all seen bar bands repeat the same darn chords over, and over, and over, and over and over. So why not this song?"

Well, my good friend, it's because it depends totally on the skill and charisma on the part of the band leader to pull this one off. All the parts are there: Great lyrics - check. Solid backbeat - check. Five note melody that any musician could play - check. The only variable in the song is how it is sung by the leader. Thus, the mastery of Muddy Waters is revealed in his simplest song of them all. And best of all, It's a boast that actually delivers on its claim.

"I'm a MAAAAaaaaan!" Muddy snarls, and we are mesmerized. In a video shot in 1971, Muddy occasionally looks right at the cameras that are poised, revealing a man in his mid-forties, with a plaid jacket and blue tie, and a big shock of hair over a beatific smile. He radiates with a charisma that is practically light. The band shouts back in response to each of his refrains, whooping the audience to a frenzy at the end of the set.

So this week, ditch your Lil' Wayne, your cookie-cutter pop bands of the week, your Pink Floyd, AC/DC, jazz-funk pretension and utterly useless "noise-based art-rock", and get down with the stuff that came first. Ain't nothing but the blues, and a listening of Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" promises to clean the saccharine radio crud out of your ears and make you feel all shiny and new.

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