John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love”

Lessons in cool from two masters, Muddy Waters and Mose Allison.

By - May 16th, 2014 03:22 pm
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Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

The music that travelled here from Africa, transformed by slaves and their descendants into the blues, gospel and jazz, has gone on to conquer the world. The European musical tradition was forced into an ongoing conversation with all things African and that intense interplay may never end. We needed this to happen. If it hadn’t, your music would be as square as your iPod, with artists not even as hip as Lawrence Welk playing minuets or schottisches (Click at your own risk). Country music, once described by Jon Pareles of the New York Times as “the soundtrack of white flight,” would even be worse than it is right now.

The subtleties can get lost in the visceral excitement generated by blues, jazz and gospel, so we tend to underestimate, if not miss them altogether. But hidden in there are some very important formal elements pertaining to scales and harmonies, not heard in popular music before ragtime, that we take for granted now. That includes the blues scale, with it’s flatted notes, and something called the dominant 7th chord that you know and love better than you mother. And don’t forget the new approach to rhythm, called syncopation, that got the world swinging instead of marching in step.

This week we talk about one song and two artists. One of them born to the manor, (in this case substitute “plantation”) with all the cultural advantages poverty and hardship offer. The other is a son of the white south who heard the blues and did something remarkably original with it.

Muddy Waters, from Stovall Plantation in Mississippi, had cool coming off of him in waves — set him on your sill on a muggy day and he would do just as well as your window unit from Sears. Alone at the top of the blues pile, if you ignore Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed, not to mention about ten others. He still casts a giant shadow and represents a gold standard for aspiring artists. Like Wolf, he could write memorable songs, but he seemed to step it up a notch when singing songs by the Poet of the Blues, Willie Dixon.

To catch him at his swaggering best, listen to him on Dixon’s gem, I  Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love. This song is a hipster’s credo, word for word one of the funniest pieces of braggadocio ever written — it somehow manages to exude confidence and a pinch of self-deprecating humor at the same time. The lyrics crack me up, as good a summary of the pleasures of a life beneath society’s radar ever written. (There are variations in many of the versions, these are Willie Dixon’s)

I love the implied threat of the first verse, he’s a pre-hip hop gangster:

 

See you watching me like a hawk

I don’t mind the way you talk

But if you touch me somethin’s got to give

I live the life I love and I love the life I live

 

So if you see me and think I’m wrong

Don’t worry ’bout me just let me go

My sweet life ain’t nothing but a thrill

I live the life I love and I love the life I live

 

The vagaries of swinger’s life described perfectly in the next verse and bridge, including one that should have won the Pulitzer for cool: “The girls move me at their will.”

 

My diamond ring and my money too

Tomorrow night could belong to you

The girls move me at their will

I live the life I love and I love the life I live

 

I may bet a thousand on a bet this time

One minute later I can’t cover your dime

Tomorrow night I might be over the hill

I just want you to know baby the way I feel

 

Unforgettable last verse, you can’t help but picture Muddy’s heavily lidded eyes:

 

You see me walkin’ as I pass you by

Don’t talk about me ’cause I could be high

Just forgive me if you will

I live the life I love and I love the life I live

 

© Willie Dixon

Muddy cut this song in 1956. Back then, only beatniks, jazzers and blues musicians were talking about getting high, using that term to describe something quite different from what Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra celebrated in their songs. Some lyric sites sanitize that line almost 60 years later. Needless to say Muddy and the excellent band, including Dixon on bass, really didn’t have to worry about their song ever being snatched, it was on a shelf too high for most to reach. Mose Allison, though, must have had a step ladder, for his version, while completely different, is memorable and a rare instance of admirable thievery that travelled in the opposite direction across color lines.

In the parallel universe of jazz, the blues is played with a lighter touch. It has stayed in the acoustic domain, for the most part, while other forms have embraced electricity and electronics. Harmonically and rhythmically it is also much more complex. But jazz and blues share a deep sense of swing and unflappable cool. Mose Allison, a superb pianist who can sometimes be heard unconsciously muttering something akin to scat as he solos,  could easily have stayed an instrumentalist. But he he had more than that to offer the world.

First, he is a songwriter who exercises his wit in a very concise way. Given to sardonic statements like Your Mind Is On Vacation And Your Mouth Is Working Overtime, his gift for social commentary is unrivaled. With a degree in philosophy and an ear for hip phrases, his songs are ironic but never cynical. One of his best, Everybody’s Crying Mercy, has such an air of total resignation you want to crawl under the covers and wait for the world to collapse around you.

As a singer you can hear as much Mississippi coming off of Allison as you do from Muddy Waters. Wikipedia reports that Jet magazine wanted to interview Allison once; having only listened to him, they were surprised to learn he was white. When not performing his own songs, he displayed great taste and understanding of the blues canon. He was atypical, to say the least, rarely doing the standards that defined other jazz musicians while carving out an instantly recognizable persona. Once he opened his mouth to sing there was no doubt who it was.

Allison grew up in Tippo, Mississippi, and the blues had to be everywhere if you only listened. Once it was received, acknowledged, studied and practiced, it grew up and travelled the world. English bands jumped all over black artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but they also liked Mose. The Who, on their Live At Leeds album cover his Young Man Blues. Their version had a lot of aggression and was a lot of fun, if not terribly authentic. The British bands who loved this music captured the larger audiences back where it originated. But while they were cashing in, they also pointed the way back to real deal. If you could read the signs, you could eventually find your way to a little juke joint with wild sounds drifting out the door with the smoke. Once past the door, all that was left to do was sit back and listen to Muddy and Mose in a dialogue as big and deep as the country you were born in.

I  Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: “I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love””

  1. BillBoy Baggins says:

    Great song! Thanks for the background. I first heard a version done by Willie Nelson and thought the tune sounded a lot like Jimmy Buffett’s “Bob Roberts Society Band”. When I called the DJ who was playing it on our local radio station, wlis/wmrd am 1150, he told me Buffett got the tune from Willie Dixon and Nelson covered the song, along with a number of others.

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