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Pioneering Bluegrass Musician Ralph Stanley

He came to fame late in life when his music was featured on the triple-platinum soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Stanley sings and plays banjo. He won two Grammys this year for his performance of "O Death" on the O Brother record. At age 75, Stanley has just released a self-titled CD and continues to tour. He's recorded more than 170 albums in total, and has been performing continuously since 1946. This interview first aired July 15, 2002.

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Other segments from the episode on December 27, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2002: Interview with Ralph Stanley; Interview with Robert Gordon.

Transcript

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Interview: Ralph Stanley discusses his music, his life and being a
bluegrass pioneer
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's encore week on our show, featuring our favorite music interviews from
2002.

Singer and banjo player Ralph Stanley is a bluegrass pioneer who's been making
records for more than 50 years. But it's only in the past couple of years
that his music has become a pop phenomenon. On the soundtrack of "O Brother,
Where Art Thou?" Stanley sang the mournful solo "Oh, Death," introducing
millions of listeners to his high, lonesome sound.

(Soundbite of "Oh, Death")

Mr. RALPH STANLEY: (Singing) Oh, death, oh, death, won't you spare me over
till another year? Well, what is this that I can't see with ice-cold hands
taking hold of me? `Well, I am death, none can excel. I'll open the door to
heaven or hell.' `Oh, death,' someone would pray, `could you wait to call me
another day?'

GROSS: Ralph Stanley's vocal solo from the "O Brother" soundtrack won the
Grammy for best male country vocal performance. The soundtrack won four other
Grammys, including album of the year, and became an unprecedented success for
folk music, selling more than five million copies. Two years ago, Stanley
received the Living Legend medal from the Library of Congress.

Ralph Stanley first started recording in the late '40s as the younger half of
the Stanley Brothers. His brother Carter died in 1966. Since 1967, Ralph has
performed with his group the Clinch Mountain Boys. I spoke with him last July
after the release of his CD "Ralph Stanley." Here's the opening track.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) When Jesus was around here on this land, he certainly
did do his father's command. Because he knew that he was his father's only
son, he came to draw men unto him. Oh, lift him up, that's all. Lift him up
in his word. If you tell the name of Jesus everywhere, if you keep his name
a-ringing everywhere that you go, he will draw men unto him.

When Jesus met the woman...

Ralph Stanley, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's wonderful to have you here.

You have what's often described as that lonesome sound, or that high lonesome
sound. That describes your sound, but does it describe your place in the
world at all? I mean, do you think of yourself as feeling that kind of
lonesomeness, or is that just...

Mr. STANLEY: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STANLEY: Well, that lonesome sound, you can't learn that.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. STANLEY: That's just got to be born and bred in you. And it's a gift
that God, I think, has given me, and he means for me to use that, maybe for
some purpose. You know, it might change somebody. I've gotten many of a
letter and a phone call from people saying that that sound had caused them,
you know, to change their life. And I just sort of believe that gift was
given to me for me to use for that purpose.

GROSS: Now the church that you grew up in, the Baptist church that you grew
up in, didn't allow instruments to be played in church. Did you sing a
cappella a lot in church?

Mr. STANLEY: I certainly did. Yeah. They don't allow music in the church.
They don't have anything against music. I'm a member of the Premonent Baptist
Church(ph), and they will buy every CD that I have released, but they don't
want me to bring the instruments in the church.

GROSS: Now what have you always liked about a cappella singing?

Mr. STANLEY: Well, you don't have anything to bother you. You know, if you
use an instrument, why, you have to stay on perfect timing. And if you do a
cappella--I'm so bad. Just wonder, you know, maybe I'll sing one verse this
way and one verse another, and if you're doing it a cappella, you don't have
to keep any time. You can just go out as far as you want to with it.

GROSS: I guess you could bend the notes in whatever direction you want to,
also.

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. Mm-hmm. That's what I like to do.

GROSS: Would you describe the part of Virginia that you grew up in?

Mr. STANLEY: I grew up down in the hills of Virginia. I can be in Kentucky
in 20 minutes, Tennessee in 20 minutes or in the state of West Virginia in 20
minutes. And it's down in the Appalachian Mountains down there. And it's
sort of a poor country. Most of the livelihood is coal mining and logging,
working in the woods and things like that. Most people has a hard life down
that way.

GROSS: And how did your family make a living when you were growing up?

Mr. STANLEY: My father was a logger. He cut timber and hauled it out of the
woods and had a sawmill. He sawed it into lumber. And, you know, the mines
needed things they call timbers and the callers(ph) and so forth. And they
use callers on the railroad track to put the rails on. And that was his
occupation, just a sawmill man and a logger.

GROSS: Did he have all of his fingers, or did he lose any of them in
accidents?

Mr. STANLEY: No. He never did do any of the work. He was the boss, so he
hired men to do all of that. He never did do any of the work.

GROSS: So he must have made a decent living.

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah. He did. We were maybe just a little bit ahead of maybe
some of the neighbors and the folks. He did well with it.

GROSS: And would you describe the church that you went to? You talked a
little bit about the music in it, but what was the church like physically?

Mr. STANLEY: Well, it was a little old white building and had homemade
benches in it. And, of course, it had a stand for the preacher to preach.
And way back in the early days I've been told--you know, I line some songs
sometimes, and I got that from the preacher. And I've heard that the reason
that the preacher lined it, they didn't have the money maybe to print a
songbook for each singer, so he would line that song, and then all the
congregation could hear the words and join in and sing.

GROSS: Yeah. I think I'm not familiar with that expression, lining a song.
What does that mean?

Mr. STANLEY: Well, you give out the words, you know, and the people can hear
that you're giving out, and then they sing that song or that line, and then
they do the same thing again.

GROSS: Oh, I see. OK.

Mr. STANLEY: Just like--you want me to give you a little sample?

GROSS: Yeah. Would you?

Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...

(Speaking) That's the lining.

(Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...

(Singing quickly) ...that saved a wretch like me.

(Singing slowly) ...that saved a wretch like me.

(Singing quickly) I once was lost, but now I'm found...

(Singing slowly) I once was lost, but now I'm found...

(Singing quickly) ...was blind, but now I see.

(Singing slowly) ...was blind, but now I see.

(Speaking) See, he gave that line out, and then they sung it.

GROSS: So even though the church didn't allow instruments, all the singing in
church was a cappella, when you got an instrument, when you got a banjo, did
your parents frown on that, or was that perfectly acceptable?

Mr. STANLEY: No. They really wanted my brother and me to--he got a guitar
and I got a banjo. And the only thing that was bad about that, we couldn't do
too well at first, and sometimes my father would run us out of the house and
we'd have to go out in a pasture field or somewhere--we lived on a little
farm--to practice.

GROSS: Oh. Because you didn't sound good you had to practice far away?

Mr. STANLEY: Well, I guess he was a little nervous. He didn't think it
sounded too good, I don't guess.

GROSS: How did you get your first banjo?

Mr. STANLEY: My first banjo, my mother's sister, my aunt, lived about a mile
from where we did, and she raised some hogs. And they called the mother a
sow, a hog, and she had some pigs. Well, the pigs was real pretty and I was
going to high school and I was taking agriculture in school. And I sort of
got a notion that I'd like to do that, raise some hogs. And so my aunt had
this old banjo, and my mother said, `Which do you want, the pig or a banjo?
And each one of 'em's $5 each.'

I said, `I'll just take the banjo.'

GROSS: It was a good choice, but why did you decide on it?

Mr. STANLEY: I guess I just liked the banjo the best.

GROSS: How'd you learn to play it?

Mr. STANLEY: My mother played a little bit of the old-time clawhammer, and
she tuned the banjo up and picked one tune for me, and it just become natural
to me. When she picked it I just started and picked it, too.

GROSS: Well, let me play something from one of your early sessions. This is
"White Dove." This is recorded in 1949. You and your brother have
songwriting credits for this. Is this an original or a traditional song that
you reworked?

Mr. STANLEY: No. Carter and me wrote that song.

(Soundbite of "White Dove")

Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) We were all so happy there together in our peaceful
little mountain home. But the Savior needs angels in heaven. Now they sing
around that great white throne.

Mr. STANLEY and Group of People: (Singing) White doves will mourn in sorrow.
The willows will hang their head. I'll live my life in sorrow since Mother
and Daddy are dead.

GROSS: That's the Stanley Brothers, recorded in 1949. My guest is Ralph
Stanley, and he has a new CD, which is called "Ralph Stanley."

Now on that recording that we just heard, your brother's singing lead; you're
singing harmony. And also singing harmony is Darrell "Pee Wee" Lambert. Talk
about the harmonies that you sang together, how you arranged it, who was
singing which part.

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah. Pee Wee Lambert, he started out when we first started our
group in 1946, and Carter did the lead singing and I done the tenor singing,
and we developed a new sound there before anybody else called the high
baritone, and Pee Wee Lambert did that. And that's just become, you know,
real popular through the years. About everybody uses that now, but we were
the first to do that particular sound with the three parts together.

GROSS: So by high baritone, does that mean he's singing the part that a
baritone would be singing, except he's singing it an octave higher?

Mr. STANLEY: Right, mm-hmm.

GROSS: My guest is Ralph Stanley. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley. He's crossed over to new
audiences as a result of his performance on the soundtrack of the film "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" His latest CD is called "Ralph Stanley."

Ralph Stanley, how do you think your voice has changed since you were
recording with your brother back in the early days?

Mr. STANLEY: I really think my voice has got better in the last two or three
years. I don't know why. I've been doing a lot more lead singing, and
everybody tells me that my voice was better than ever, and I agree with them.
Maybe I've learned to do more with it. I don't know what.

GROSS: Well, there's a real depth to your voice.

Mr. STANLEY: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Do you think you're any less shy about performing than you used to be?

Mr. STANLEY: I reckon I am. I'll tell you, when we first started, I was
scared to death. Oh, I dreaded going on the stage worse than anything.

GROSS: What were you afraid of? Not that stage fright needs an explanation,
but what kind of stage fright did you have?

Mr. STANLEY: Just people hearing my voice, a crowd of people. Maybe not
singing to soothe them or something, fail, maybe I'd make a mistake or my
voice would crack or something.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did your brother Carter have the same insecurity, or was he
more confident?

Mr. STANLEY: No, he was more confident. He was very forward.

GROSS He is the one who did, I think, most of the talking on stage as well as
the lead singing.

Mr. STANLEY: He did all the emcee work.

GROSS: And did you ever wish that you could share that with him, or were you
relieved that you didn't have to worry about that?

Mr. STANLEY: No, I never did want to do that. But I'd say a year or maybe a
couple year before he passed away in '66, why, we would be on the stage
together, maybe singing a song, and when the song ended, he'd just walk off.
And I had to come up there and say something or walk off, too. So I would go
up and start talking. And I believe he knew that I would be needing to do
that someday. I believe that that's the reason he done that.

GROSS: You think he knew that he was sick and wasn't long for the world?

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, 'cause, you know, he was sick, and I think he knew that.

GROSS: You know, as we said earlier, you have have that real lonesome sound.
Do you think of your brother as having had that, too? And did you have the
same taste in songs?

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, we liked the same songs. But Carter's voice didn't have
the lonesome feel that mine did. And you know, after he passed away, why, I
never did replace Carter, but I got a lot of good lead singers that could sing
his part. I hate to brag on myself, but I don't think he could ever replace
me, what everybody says.

GROSS: He died in 1966. Was it liver cancer?

Mr. STANLEY: Yes, uh-huh.

GROSS: Did you know that he was sick? Did he know that he was sick?

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, he knew he was sick. We got a doctor up in Bristol,
Tennessee, that we went to all the time, and he liked us. He played the banjo
a little bit. And when we moved down in Florida, the doctor came down there
one Christmas on vacation, and he had his doctor instruments with him. And he
took Carter in his house and examined him, and he told Carter, he said, `If
you don't quit what you're doing,' he said, `you won't last another year.'
And that was the 26th of December, and he passed away the next year on the 1st
of December.

GROSS: Right, so the doctor almost hit it on the head.

Mr. STANLEY: He certainly did.

GROSS: When your brother died, it must have really sent you into a crisis
both, you know, personally and professionally.

Mr. STANLEY: Well, it...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. STANLEY: It did. I didn't know hardly what to do. You know, I wanted to
carry on, but I didn't know whether I could or not. But I got cards and
letters by the hundreds, phone calls telling me, said, `Please don't quit.
We've always supported the Stanley Brothers, and now we'll be more supportive
to you because we feel like you might need it.' So you know, that picked me
up.

GROSS: You've had good years and you've had lean years professionally. What
were the most difficult years?

Mr. STANLEY: The most difficult years was about the time Elvis Presley came
out, that rock 'n' roll boom. And that just about crippled everybody. I
guess that's the reason that Columbia Records let us go. And there was a lot
of entertainers that the record companies got rid of at that time. And it
just crippled everything except rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: Did you like Elvis Presley?

Mr. STANLEY: Well, I d--you mean to hear him?

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. STANLEY: I don't like that sound, still. I never did like Elvis'
singing. But there was millions that did.

GROSS: Where do you live now? How close to where you grew up in southwest
Virginia do you live?

Mr. STANLEY: I live about six miles from where I was born and raised.

GROSS: Do you have land?

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, I've got some land. I've still got the old home place
where I have a festival each year. And then I bought six acres about six
miles from where I was raised, and built a house and live there.

GROSS: Do you have any farm animals?

Mr. STANLEY: I've got a couple of horses and I've got a few cattle. I
couldn't hardly get that completely out of my system. So I lose money every
year on them, but it's just a hobby I like.

GROSS: Well, that's nice. It's interesting that you have achieved more
popularity now in your, I think, mid-70s than you've had in years. And people
usually assume it's going to be the other way around. Are you surprised by
this reversal?

Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, I'm surprised. You know, back about seven or eight years
ago, I got a lot of the country entertainers to sing with me and recorded a CD
and it done real well. And then I went back and done the same thing again,
only got more country entertainers. And then this "O Brother" thing came
along, and I think that's done more for this old-time music than anything that
ever happened.

GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk with you, and I'm so happy for the
success that you have now. Why don't we end with another track from your new
CD, which is called "Ralph Stanley"? And, Ralph Stanley, thank you so much
for talking with us.

Mr. STANLEY: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it, and I've enjoyed
it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) 'Twas in the year of '92 in the merry month of June.
I left my mother and my home so dear to go with the girl from the greenbrier
shore.

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, our encore week continues with the life and times of Muddy
Waters. We talk with Robert Gordon about his book, "Can't Be Satisfied," a
biography of the singer and guitarist who electrified the Delta blues.

(Soundbite of music)

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Interview: Robert Gordon discusses the life and musical career of
Muddy Waters
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's encore week, featuring our favorite music interview of the year. Earlier
this year I spoke with Robert Gordon about his biography of blues guitarist
and singer Muddy Waters, the musician who electrified the Delta blues. Muddy
Waters grew up on a plantation on the Mississippi Delta and moved to Chicago
as a young man. He not only took the blues in a new direction, he influenced
rock 'n' roll. Gordon writes, `His song "Rolling Stone" inspired a band name
and a magazine. When Bob Dylan went from acoustic folk music to rock 'n'
roll, he hired white musicians who'd learned from Muddy in Chicago.' Songs
that Muddy wrote or made famous have become mainstream hits when performed by
Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and plenty of others.

Robert Gordon is also the author of "It Came from Memphis" and "The King on
the Road." He directed the blues documentary "All Day and All Night." Here's
Muddy Waters, recorded in 1950.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, you know, you leave home in the mornin',
you don't come back. You don't come back until night. You won't cook me no
food, and you're still sad. You treat me right, but, hey, you gonna need,
you gonna need my help, I said. Well, you know I won't have to worry. I have
everything, little girl, coming my way. No, I ain't going to worry about it
no more, man. All right, little walkin'.

GROSS: Robert Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with just summing up
Muddy Waters' musical importance. Would you do that for us?

Mr. ROBERT GORDON: OK. I think his great musical contribution is sort of
juicing the blues and creating the foundation for rock 'n' roll. He started
in the Delta in the South on an acoustic guitar, and in the '40s, went to
Chicago, where an acoustic guitar couldn't be heard in the clubs and adapted
the Delta blues style and the feeling of the Delta blues and put it first to
an electric guitar and then into a full band. And when they started doing
that faster in the '60s, they called it rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: You've put together some tracks that are well-known and some that are
obscure. So let's listen to what is I think a pretty obscure Muddy Waters
recording. This is from 1941, before he started plugging in...

Mr. GORDON: Right.

GROSS: ...and it's a well-known song of his, "I Can't Be Satisfied." What
should we be listening for in this 1941 recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, this is the first time he's going to hear himself back,
which is an interesting thing to think about. He gets the validation from
hearing this that he can do it. And what I think you hear in these early
recordings in his type of blues, you can hear the work, you can hear sort
of--there's like blues like Robert Johnson, where you hear kind of the field
hand playing hooky. He's not at work. In Muddy, I think you hear the work.
And so you can just kind of--I think this evokes the feel very clearly.

GROSS: So here's Muddy Waters, recorded in 1941, recorded by Alan Lomax.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, I feel in my heart, like I feel today, I'm gonna
pack my suitcase and make my getaway. 'Cause I'm trouble. I'm all worried
in my mind. And I never been satisfied and I just can't keep from cryin'.
Yeah, I know my little baby, she gonna jump and shout.

GROSS: Muddy Waters was first recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax made
that 1941 recording that we just heard of "I Can't Be Satisfied." How did
Lomax find out about Muddy Waters?

Mr. GORDON: It actually goes back to this fire in Natchez in, I believe, 1940
at a nightclub where there was a black society ball. And because people were
going to be trying to crash the party, they'd locked the doors at the club,
and when the club caught on fire, there was no escaping. It was this
horrible, horrible fire. And this African-American musicologist at Fisk
University, a black school in Nashville, knew that a year after that fire
there would be a new folklore about it, that there would be songs written.
And he wanted to go down to Natchez and record that new material. And in the
course of appealing for funds, Fisk went to the Library of Congress, and
that's where Alan Lomax got wind of the project and saw the importance of it.

It ended up that the timing was such they couldn't get to Natchez, but they
chose Coahoma County, which is where Clarksdale is in Mississippi because it
had a very dense African-American population. And they went down there in
1941 and '42 to investigate the role of music in the culture there.

GROSS: And that's where he found Muddy Waters.

Mr. GORDON: He found Muddy Waters and "Honeyboy" Edwards and Son House and
just a whole slew of great recordings.

GROSS: You described what Muddy Waters' reaction was after Alan Lomax played
back Waters' first recording. What was his reaction?

Mr. GORDON: He's got all these 78s in his cabin that he's heard, and when he
hears himself back, he goes, `Man, I can sing.'

GROSS: So he was pleased with what he heard?

Mr. GORDON: Yeah. He was pleased. I think he was astounded.

GROSS: Robert Gordon, let's jump ahead seven years when he makes this song
again and records it commercially. What's the difference between the two
versions?

Mr. GORDON: Essentially, what we're going to hear in this is what I call
amplified Delta blues; that is, he's now been given an electric guitar and the
gun to figure it out. He hasn't created what will soon be called Chicago
blues or urban blues or city blues, and instead here, it's the Delta style
that we just heard with a little more power. I think you can feel the kind of
tractor seat bounce in that song that we just heard and that we'll hear now.
I, you know, just imagine him in a seat, either on a tractor or behind a plow,
and I think there's the rhythm of those wheels and the furrowed field. I
think all of that is right here.

GROSS: Here's Muddy Waters in 1948, "Can't Be Satisfied."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) 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'.

Well, I feel like snappin', pistol in your face. I'm gonna let some
graveyard, Lord, be her resting place. Woman, I'm troubled, I be all worried
in mind. Well, baby, I can't never be satisfied, and I just can't keep from
cryin'.

Baby...

Mr. GORDON: If I can, can I just talk a little more about that song?

GROSS: "Can't Be Satisfied"?

Mr. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. GORDON: Because that--when he makes that recording, you know, on which
basically his career is built because "Can't Be Satisfied" comes out and it
takes off. You know, he's established. It comes out on a Friday, it sells
out over the weekend, which was very rare. And all of a sudden, he's a name,
you know, and then his career is going.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, now all in my sleep, hear my doorbell ring,
looking for my baby, I didn't see not a doggone thing. Woman, I was troubled,
I was all worried in mind. Well, honey, I couldn't help but be satisfied and
I just couldn't keep from cryin'. Well, I know my little babe, she gonna jump
and shout, that old train delayed me, Lord, and I come walkin' out. I be in
trouble. I be all worrying about it. Well, honey, ain't no way in the world
for me to be satisfied and I just can't keep from cryin'.

GROSS: That's Muddy Waters. My guest is Robert Gordon, the author of a new
biography of Muddy Waters called "Can't Be Satisfied." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Robert Gordon, is the author of the biography "Can't Be
Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters."

Let's listen to another recording that Muddy Waters makes pretty early in his
stay in Chicago. This is from 1950. And this is "Rollin' and Tumblin',"
which has since been covered many times. What do you find remarkable about
this recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, this is recorded upon the return to Chicago. In 1950,
after he's enjoyed some success, he and Jimmy Rogers, who was his guitarist,
and Little Walter, who was the harmonica player, and Baby Face Leroy on
drums, they say, you know, `Man, we made it. Let's go home triumphant.' And
that's when they go back and do this tour in the South, and they get a program
on KFFA, where they'd heard "King Biscuit Time," you know, in their youth.
And they come back North, and Leonard Chess at Chess Records will not record
the band. He's very--you know, he's got a successful thing. He didn't like
to change. And Muddy was all about change. So the band went to this
competing recording studio and I think--and they laid down this track. And in
it, I think you can hear, you know, the excitement of their triumphant return
home and they're back in the North and, you know, the world is theirs and
they're just enjoying it. Very sexual, what we'll hear, too, which I think
is, you know, at the core of the blues. You'll hear no words, essentially
here. This is just power.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it, recorded in 1950, Muddy Waters.

(Soundbite of "Rollin' and Tumblin'")

GROSS: That's Muddy Waters, recorded in 1950, "Rollin' and Tumblin'." And my
guest, Robert Gordon, is the author of a new biography of Muddy Waters called
"Can't Be Satisfied."

Well, as you were explaining, Muddy Waters recorded that for a record label
that wasn't Chess because Leonard Chess of Chess Records didn't like the sound
of it. But then Leonard Chess decides to record that song. What happened?

Mr. GORDON: Chess was really the power in the market at the time, and that
record came out, it didn't have Muddy's name on the label. But, you know, his
sound was all over it. It was very clear who it was. It came out under the
name of variously either Little Walter, the harmonica player, or Baby Face
Leroy, the drummer. And I love that drumming there. It's just, like--you
know, it's punk rock, sixteenth notes just constant. And so Chess says, `Hey,
you know, this is starting to take off. You come over here and do it for me.'
And they record a much cleaner version that doesn't have that same kind of
frenzy to it.

GROSS: I'm going to skip ahead to 1951, to a recording called "Still A Fool."
And you say that this recording really exemplifies what's going to happen with
the use of electric guitar. All right, talk a little bit about this 1951
recording and the new sound that Muddy Waters is getting in it.

Mr. GORDON: This is the beginning of urban blues. This is the beginning.
This is when the electric guitar is no longer playing amplified Delta blues.
This is a new sound. This is not a sound that they heard or could have made
in the Delta. Listen to the power in the electric guitar, the crunch of the
strings. Again, this is--I think it speaks for itself, really, but you'll
hear--I mean, from here, this is essentially the foundation of modern blues.

GROSS: Let's hear it. Muddy Waters, recorded in 1951, "Still A Fool."

(Soundbite of "Still A Fool")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, now there's two, there's two trains running.
Well, they ain't never, no, going my way. Well, now, one run at midnight and
the other one, running just for a day. It's running just for a day.
It's running just for a day. Oh, Lord, sure enough, there is. Oh, well.

Mm, mm. Ho, ho, ho. Somebody help me, ho, with these blues. Well, now,
she's the one I'm loving, she's the one I do hate to lose, I do hate to
lose...

GROSS: That's Muddy Waters. My guest is Robert Gordon, author of the
biography of Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) The blues start rolling and they stop dead right in my
front door.

GROSS: My guest, Robert Gordon, is the author of the biography "Can't Be
Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters."

One of the things you did for the biography of Muddy Waters is find some of
his surviving friends and surviving relatives. Who were the surviving
relatives that you were able to make contact with?

Mr. GORDON: I made contact and became friends with Muddy's brothers,
half-brother in Rolling Fork, Robert Morganfield, and his granddaughter, whom
he raised, Amelia "Cookie" Cooper. And through them, really, once I met them
and gained their trust and developed a rapport, I began to get beyond the
stage and beyond the recording studio. It was easy to find bandmates, and
they were happy to talk, but getting into the family, they took me inside the
home. And Cookie, especially, the granddaughter, she was raised by Muddy and
his wife, lived with them since she was three in 1959. And I knocked on her
door. She was expecting me. She opens the door and says, essentially, `I
told you I would talk to you, so come in, but I don't really want to talk to
you.'

And I had waited about a year and a half or two years into my research to
approach her because I wanted to go in educated and armed. And once I began
to ask, you know, detailed, family-specific questions, she opened up. And she
said that Muddy, you know, was not a great man in the house, that, you know,
she talked frankly about his womanizing and about the effect that had on his
wife and in the household and on Cookie. And she laid it all on the line.
She spoke very honestly. And that gave me--her doing that was a huge
inspiration to me because it gave me--there is a dark side to Muddy Waters.
In the foreword to the book, Keith Richards writes, `There's a demon in all of
us, and certainly, there was a demon in Muddy.' And her frank and forthright
account of it allowed me to approach it similarly in the book.

GROSS: Well, there's certainly a lot of darkness in his lyrics and a lot of
sexuality in his lyrics, so I guess in that sense, it's not surprising that
there was darkness and a lot of sexuality in his life as well. How did it
affect your sense of him as a man to hear stories of his womanizing and of
other things that he did that, I imagine, were dark or offensive to you?

Mr. GORDON: I was on this book--it took me five years to write. Because he
didn't read or write, there was no filing cabinet I was going to find that had
the box with his journal and all the answers in it, you know. So it took
going around and finding the people. And in that five years, I went from, you
know, really liking him to there was a period where I really didn't like him.

GROSS: Did it affect your feelings about his music, because, let's face it,
a lot of his songs are about having sex with women who you are not married
to...

Mr. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and may be married to other people or you may be married to another
person?

Mr. GORDON: `She said, "Come on in now, Muddy. My husband just now left."'
That's from "Rolling Stone." In the five years, I never tired of listening to
the music, and I think what the sort of understanding of his--of his
understanding of his sexuality--what that gave me was, I think--you know, I
began to examine the lyrics deeper and kind of feel the sex in the songs.

GROSS: Why don't we close with a recording of Muddy Waters singing his song
"Mannish Boy." What's the significance of this recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, you know, the sexuality here, again, is very clear. And
several people in Muddy's family talked about that when he would sing this
song, he brought a voice--you know, he threw his whole self into it. When I
asked Cookie, the granddaughter, once, you know, `Why do you think he did
these bad things to the home?' And she said, `Because he's a man.' And, you
know, whew, that kind of left me stunned, but, you know, in this song, I think
you'll hear it.

GROSS: Robert Gordon recorded earlier this year after the publication of his
biography of Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied." His documentary on Muddy
Waters is scheduled for broadcast on the PBS "American Masters" series in
April.

(Credits)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Whoo! Everything, everything,
everything gonna be all right this morning. Oh, yeah. Whoo! Yeah! Now when
I was a young boy, at the age of five, my mother said I was gonna be the
greatest man alive. But now I'm a man, way past 21. I want you to believe
me, baby, I had lots of fun. I'm a man. I spell M, A, child, N. That
represents me. Yeah! No, B, whoo!

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) ...natural born lovers man. I'm a man. I'm a rolling'
stone. I'm a man. I'm a hoochie coochie man sittin' on the outside, just me
and my mate. You know, I'm made to move, honey. Come up two hours late.
Wasn't that a man? I spell M, A, child, N. That represents me. No B, O,
child, Y. That mean mannish boy. I'm a man. I'm a full grown man. Man.
I'm a natural born lovers man. Man. I'm a rollin' stone. Man-child. I'm a
hoochie coochie man. The line I shoot will never miss when I make love to a
woman. She can't resist. I think I go down to old Kansas Stew. I'm gonna
bring back my second cousin, that little Johnny Cocheroo. All you little
girls, sittin' out at that line. I can make love to you woman, in five
minutes time. Ain't that a man? I spell M, A, child, N. That represents I'm
grown. No B, O, child, Y. That mean mannish boy. Man.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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