One of the things that has always attracted to me to The Blues was the dichotomy between religion and earthly pleasures. It runs deep through many Blues artists including Son House (who became a Preacher at one point) and continues through Soul with the likes of Little Richard and Sam Cooke among others. So it’s rather fitting that my first real introduction to The Blues would come on Sunday mornings when I was supposed to be attending Mass.
Growing up in a Catholic family, attending weekly Mass was an expectation. There was no getting around it: Sunday mornings meant Mass at 9 AM with my parents. The hour-plus long service almost always felt like an annoyance to me, especially during the school year. My mind would inevitably wander during the sermon and I would count down the minutes until it ended.
As I grew to be a teenager, I began to feel more disillusioned with The Church altogether. It was becoming apparent that their teachings no longer aligned with my own personal views. Yet, I still had to go.
Around the age of 15, to my surprise, my parents decided I was old enough to go to a later service with my older brother instead of them. To me, this was a God-send. I figured if I had to go, I might as well go with him. At least we could listen to music on the way there.
My brother had different plans though. Not only was he not particularly interested in Mass like me, but he also had no intentions of really going. Occasionally we would pop our heads in to see which priest was residing but most of the time we would either drive around or go grab coffee at a shop near the church.
As we drove around, my brother would play all kinds of different music and explain the history of the artist or song to me. In particular, he liked Classic Rock and Blues. On those Sunday mornings I learned that Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck were all in the Yard-Birds and that many of Keith Richards’ riffs were just a variation on Chuck Berry.
As he continued talking about the history of Rock Music, he started dropping odd names I barely knew or had never heard before: Son House, Muddy Waters, Charley Patton. (Earlier, he had introduced me to Howlin’ Wolf in an attempt to dissuade me from liking Led Zeppelin.)
I was quickly becoming fascinated with tales of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil to play guitar and Muddy Waters’ friendly rival with Howlin’ Wolf. Prior to this my only real knowledge of the Blues came from U2’s Rattle and Hum when B.B. King appeared in the movie. In my mind, The Blues had been a type of music played by guys who had been dead for decades that wasn’t particularly relevant anymore. The more I listened to my brother and the music through the car stereo, I was quickly being proven wrong.
I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the bluesmen struggle with religion and mine own. They would sing about their sexual exploits in one song, then plead for redemption in another. I was feeling bad for skipping Church – that’s Catholic guilt for you – but these Sunday morning lessons in music history were much more exciting and fascinating.
“Okay,” My brother said, seeing that I was interested in more. “You’ll love this then.” And with that he threw a beat-up cassette into the tape deck. I looked at the cover that read: Muddy Waters at Newport, 1960. And with that “Got My Mojo Working” came flying out of the speakers to blow my mind.
If I had to pick the single greatest live performance ever captured on wax, it would probably be Waters’ version of “Got My Mojo Working” from Newport. It’s a tightly controlled performance that teeters on the chaotic, but never fully collapses: even when drummer Franic Clay gives Keith Moon a run for his money in the cymbal crashing department.
As the song builds, Waters pushes both himself and the band as far as they can go. You can hear the audience in the background cheering in ecstasy. Taking it even further, Waters presses his lips tightly and shouts, “Bbbbhhh…workin’!” as if it’s too much mental work to even complete the line. His brain has been taken over completely by sex. When the song finally ends in a crash, it’s a release that’s part physical, part mental and of course, metaphorical.
Waters’ use of “mojo” caught my attention quickly: earlier that year Mike Myers re-popularized the word with the first Austin Powers movie. I had no idea it had been around for that long. I mentioned that to my brother who seemed amused. He then asked me if I knew the origins of “Rock and Roll” and “Jazz”. My eyes widened when he explained that rock and roll was dirty slang for sex and Jazz actually referred to semen.
As a kid, I had been taught that Church was a time for learning and reflection. Those Sunday mornings with my brother weren’t quiet – they were loud, explosive and filled with slide guitars, sexually charged lyrics, and booming voices fueled by alcohol and cigarettes. I knew where my church was now: rock and roll and the blues.