the blues mafia

The Muddywood guitar. The design replicates the route of the Mississippi River.

Writers, performers and other professional presenters often create idealistic images of the past or even images of things that never existed at all. In the case of the blues, such presenters and opinion leaders have been dubbed “the blues mafia” by musician and academic Tom Attah in a 2013 essay called “Feels Like Going Home: Mythologising the Story of the Blues.” Attah was particularly referring to the 1960s rediscovery of the American blues by teenaged baby boomers in the United States and Europe searching for “authentic” blues players from the past, i.e. an aging black guitar-playing bluesman previously gone undiscovered. When attending performances of such players, boomers often expected to see an old black man in tattered clothes playing his guitar and belting out a blues ballad. This “mafia’s” expectations of authenticity then drove producers and event organizers to fulfill this image in real life.

This phenomenon was also apparent in the pre-WWII era. Take bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), for example. This large blues player from the Chicago blues scene of the 1930s and 1940s was also known for his fancy clothes. When he performed at a Carnegie Hall concert called “From Spirituals to Swing” in December 1938, however, he was asked to take off his suit and don overalls to convince the audience that he was indeed “the living embodiment of an untutored folk musician.” Broonzy complied and kept the “mask” going when he toured Europe in the 1950s, influencing such budding rock musicians there like John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. If the rustic image was what American and European audiences wanted, Big Bill was more than happy to provide it.

The blues mafia works in other, more curious ways, as well. Take the case of the Texas blues band ZZ Top, which later turned to rock and roll. They are the band with long beards and a cool touring car. “ZZ Top (pronounced ‘zee zee top’) is an American rock band from Houston, Texas, formed in 1969. The group consists of founder Billy Gibbons (guitar, lead vocals), Dusty Hill (bass, vocals) and Frank Beard (drums, percussion). Initially rooted in blues, ZZ Top’s style has evolved throughout their career, with a signature sound based on Gibbons’ blues guitar style and Hill and Beard’s rhythm section. Their lyrics, often embellished with sexual innuendo, focus on their Texas roots and humor. Popular for their live performances, the group has staged several elaborate tours,” explains Wikipedia.

Actually, not everyone in the band is from Houston, but all are bona-fide Texans. One of the band’s greatest hits was “La Grange” about a house of ill repute (now closed) in that small Texas town, best known for its portrayal in the 1982 movie “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. The nondescript farmhouse with no advertising sign was also called the “Chicken Ranch.” After a series of features by the flamboyant KTRK-TV reporter Marvin Zindler (1921-2007) that shed light on the Chicken Ranch’s operation, authorities finally closed the place in 1973. The Texas brothel had been operating since 1905.

So what’s the blues connection? ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, number 32 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Guitarists,” decided in the late 1990s to pay homage to one of the blues’ greatest performers, Muddy Waters, by creating a special guitar from the remaining timber of Muddy’s old shack on the Stovall Plantation in  Mississippi. “It was humble beginnings for what really is an offering to the Delta Blues Museum [in Clarksdale]. The guitar can be a focal point for modern blues musicians to pay homage to the museum, which has been doing a fine job of preserving this art form we now know as American music,” writes Gibbons on the official ZZ Top website. There were actually two guitars made, both called “Muddywood,” one for the museum and the other that Gibbons uses on tour.

This is not life imitating art, or vice-versa. It is the exact opposite of what the blues mafia represents. It is a great guitarist offering an authentic gift to blues posterity.

“Rather than paint the instrument blue, we decided against that because it was just too corny. The Mississippi River paint scheme was applied to the instrument as a symbol of the power of what the river has come to be known and interpreted as. Certainly, it was the Mississippi River that gave the initial rise to the Delta, which of course became the fertile ground for the invention of the blues. The museum guitar is really the ‘player.’ There was just something about it upon completion. It not only sounded great, but it played like melted butter,” Billy said in an interview in 2012 with The Billy F. Gibbons Appreciation Society.

The Muddywood guitar was unveiled in 1998 at the Delta Blues Museum, and currently sits in a corner of the restored cabin where Muddy once lived. What, then, can be a greater representation of the heyday of American blues than a guitar made from the 150 year old wood of an old slave shack?

Hardly a blues mafia creation, Muddywood is an authentic contribution to blues history.

ZZ Top plays “Blue Jean Blues”

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