#348: Muddy Waters, "At Newport 1960" (1960)

The attentive reader will recall my vexed relationship with the abstraction of "The 1960s." And surely the attentive reader will not at all be surprised when I bring that vexation to bear on an album whose title announces the decade it greets, At Newport 1960, a live recording of Muddy Waters's set at the Newport Jazz Festival from that year. It's an album that has everything to do with the decade about to unfold, and nothing to do with this or that grand narrative of the decade itself. And yet, the attentive reader will interject, to say that an album speaks to the decade that follows it necessarily implies some narrative of that decade, whether I want it to or not. This point is well taken. It is so well taken, in fact, that I must admit it leaves my whole aversion to "The 1960s" in a somewhat dubious place. By distancing myself from this abstraction in this way, don't I just allow myself room to construct another, equally abstract "1960s," just in terms of the particular elements I personally want to highlight? The short answer to this line of questioning—presumably originating in my attentive reader—is, well, yes. And the only thing for me to do is take back everything I've said. And lest the attentive reader turn into a hostile one, and accuse me of so much postmodern frippery, I should now admit that this gesture of taking back everything I've said is of a piece with At Newport 1960, whose strangeness has something to do with the way it, itself, takes back everything it's said at the end. The only difference between the album and me is that the album doesn't announce its recanting.

To begin at the end: the last song on At Newport, "Goodbye Newport Blues," is sung not by Muddy Waters but by Otis Spann, the pianist in Waters's band and a veritable bluesman in his own right. The lyrics, according to a number of things I read, all of which seemed to agree and all of which seemed equally vague, were written that day, on the spot, by none other than everybody's favorite Popular Front poet, Langston Hughes. He wrote the words—so the various online accounts say—after finding out that the directors of the Newport Jazz Festival had decided to acquiesce to the demands of the city of Newport, RI, which had called for the concert to be canceled after a riot broke out the previous day. This isn't entirely clear just from listening to the song or to the lyrics; they sound like, well, blues lyrics, at least at first. An opening verse that treads familiar territory—"It's a gloomy day at Newport / everything is sad, sad, sad"—gives way to a second, more unsettling one, full of questions:

What's gonna happen to my music?
What's gonna happen to my song?

Even knowing that these lines respond to the immediate predicaments of the Newport festival, I still can't help but hear in these questions a response to the general situation facing black blues artists. On the business end of things, record labels infamously lied, cheated, and stole—not much has changed, has it?—to make sure bluesmen saw as little of the money their music made as possible. And in terms of aesthetics, white rock and roll, the archetypal "1960s" genre, took whatever it wanted and without so much as a second thought from black artists. It makes total sense, then, that one would ask, "what's gonna happen to my music?" And it's a marvelous coincidence that this sentiment would weave itself through the immediate breaking-up of the Newport Jazz Festival, as if the latter event were a particular demonstration of the sentiment's broader truth, its basis in a racist reality.

But there's more to it than that, even. Langston Hughes, one of the greatest North American political poets, penned these lines in July of 1960, a year after he helped compile his own writing for a Selected Poems that included none of his most politically radical verse in it. This editorial decision on Hughes's part has a lot to do with his general feelings after his House Unamerican Activities Committee hearing in 1953, which led the author of such brilliant (and explicitly communist) poems as "Advertisement for the Waldorf Astoria" to downplay his previous political commitments. How is this not part and parcel of the worry over "what's gonna happen to my music?" The great sadness in these lines issues forth from a fear of what the future will bring, whether its new-born babe will be wrapped in the red flag of Revolution, or if it will continue asking, "are you now or have you ever been…?"

If there's a good reason not to take back everything I've said, then, as I suggested I might do at the beginning, it's because of this very ambivalence on Hughes's (and Waters's, and Otis Spann's) part. "The 1960s" doesn't quite make room for this sense of quiet defeat, maybe because it is a tone in keeping with "The 1950s," but maybe because it doesn't quite fit into the idealist narratives of the nostalgic chroniclers I here tendentially oppose. Am I saying, then, that this album is a sad manifesto for a decade of defeat? No way—no such quietism and retreat in the blues. In fact, it's important, if not decisive, that Hughes's lyrics aren't in his attractive Collected Poems volume. They're not a poem. They're lyrics to a song. They're nothing without the music that accompanies them.

Thus the uncertainty, however personal it may be for Hughes, however specific to one event it may be in scope, brings with it the possibility of a collective response. Hughes doesn't get up and read his words. He hands them over to Otis Spann, who sings them and plays the piano, while Muddy Waters plays the guitar, and the rest of the band plays their respective instruments. A crushing loss becomes, suddenly, an occasion for collaboration, for people coming together and working together. The contingency of the thing—the duration of the song—doesn't really matter so much as the thing itself, that it happened, which means that it could conceivably happen again. How many other events could we tackle as a group? How many other things could we respond to in so beautiful a way?

If I have spent the entirety of this piece writing about one song, then I have done so because the contours of its situation say something about the rest of At Newport, which is very far indeed from a contemplative, melancholy reflection on state repression and the fate of political consciousness. It's a party, a celebration, a group of people—band and audience alike—who seem quite fond of one another, and quite happy to spend the time they have together. Why else would Waters and co. play through "Got My Mojo Working" twice? And why else would Waters change the lyrics to "Hoochie-Coochie Man" in the last chorus, rewriting a declaration of individuality ("you know I'm the hoochie-coochie man / everybody knows I'm him") into a statement of hope and defiance and most importantly of collectivity, one that lies at the root of many of the accounts of "The 1960s" I have taken peculiar aim at? It's a couplet worth closing with, as a gesture of both reconciliation with and continued defiance of "The 1960s," and as an announcement of that Utopianism that, if nothing else, "The 1960s" usefully summarizes and reminds us to find everywhere and in everything, and to struggle in the service of on the daily. And so I give the last words to Muddy Waters:

you know we are the hoochie-coochie boys
the whole United States knows we're here

—David W. Pritchard