MUDDY WATERS / “Trouble No More”
I recently bought His Best, a CD of the greatest hits from the first decade or so of the great Muddy Waters’ career. As I expected, I heard lots of songs I already knew, both from having heard Muddy himself sing them and from hearing other musicians cover Muddy. But when the last track of the CD came on, I had to check the liner notes for the song credits. The song was listed as “Trouble No More” and credited to McKinley Morganfield, BKA Muddy Waters. That was strange because it was virtually the same song as “Someday Baby,” a recent Bob Dylan tune that I first heard when it was featured in one of those ubiquitous iTunes commercials.
My first stop for more information was the Dylan CD itself, Modern Times, where I discovered that “all songs [were] written by Bob Dylan.” That notation became even odder when I noticed that the Modern Times CD actually contained a second Muddy Waters cover, namely “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” (with the title intact and all).* So then I started poking around on the ‘net, trying to figure out why a songwriter as accomplished and successful as Bob Dylan would be ripping off Muddy Waters songs.
The first thing I discovered was that “Trouble No More”/”Someday Baby” is about as old as dirt and no one knows for sure who actually wrote it. Many sources say it was originally composed as “Worried Life Blues” by an old-time guitarman by the name of ‘Sleepy’ John Estes. But when other blues singers cover it (and it’s been covered a whole hell of a lot), they typically do a little adjusting to the lyrics or the arrangement and call it a new song.
Little Junior Parker (born in Clarksdale, Mississippi; performed in Memphis; influenced Elvis Presley) has a slowed down, brassy version that goes by the original title of “Worried Life Blues.”
Pianist Johnnie Jones (born in Clarksdale, Mississippi; performed in Chicago; sideman to Elmore James) used the original title too, but changed some of the words and performed it with just voice and piano, the latter sounding eerily reminiscent of New Orleans’ Professor Longhair. The cut is on a compilation album called Rare Chicago Blues.
On You Gotta Move, I found a beautiful country-blues version by Mississippi Fred McDowell (who, despite his sobriquet, was actually born in Rossville, Tennessee; known for his famous declaration, “I do not play no rock ‘n roll”). Despite the fact that he’s performing the exact same song as everyone else, Fred lays personal claim to it by renaming it “Fred’s Worried Life Blues.”
After listening to the three above versions, the first thing one notices about Muddy’s cover is the arrangement. Muddy renames the song “Trouble No More” (and he sings it that way in the chorus: “you ain’t gonna worry my life no more” becomes “you ain’t gonna trouble poor me anymore”) and performs it in a rollicking boogie-woogie style that sounds like it was lifted straight out of a noisy juke joint. As was his way, Muddy performs his version with a lot of big-chested bravado. The “Worried Life” versions are blue not just in genre, but in tone as well; the narrators sound resigned to their problems. Muddy, by contrast, is talking big shit. “Come on, baby,” he said as ol’ girl is heading out of the door, “Come shake my hand.”
Last up is Dylan’s version and it’s immediately apparent that Dylan isn’t covering “Worried Life Blues,” he’s covering “Trouble No More.” Dylan’s arrangement follows Muddy’s closely – it has that same infectious uptempo groove and Dylan performs the chorus almost identically, down to the strangely-timed pauses. The verses are different though, and it’s there that Dylan puts his unique stamp on this well-traveled tune. I’ve always liked Dylan’s wry humor and it shows up here in lines like, “Well, I don’t want to brag, but I’m gonna wring your neck,” and “Living this way ain’t a natural thing to do.”
After finding out about Sleepy John and all the versions of “Worried Life” and so on, I was ready to stamp this episode ‘mystery solved’ and put it away in the file cabinet. But then I was listening to “Fred’s Worried Life Blues” and I got to thinking. Something about that version sounded so familiar to me, although I’d never heard it (or any other version of “Worried Life Blues”) before this week. Finally it hit me: both in sentiment and melody, the chorus sounds a lot like another classic blues, “Sitting On Top Of The World.” I looked it up, and sure enough, one source said Sleepy John’s “Worried Life Blues” was actually his version of the even older “Sitting On Top Of The World.” That may or may not be the case, but in either event, it’s a can of worms I’m not about to open. Not in this post, at least.
—Mtume ya Salaam
* Note though, that the history and original authorship of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” is just as convoluted as that of “Trouble No More”/”Someday Baby.” As with “Trouble No More,” Muddy’s is the most famous blues version.
Deciphering the blues
Sherlock Holmes done lost his way trying to track down what the blues men say. Boy might as well try to snuff out the sun. There ain’t no way to settle an issue that never was straight from the get go.
Mtume, I like that you tried. And of course love the music—Mississippi Fred McDowell is an especial favorite of mine, got more songs by this man than songs from most jazz artists…. Fred was a griot of extraordinary depth. (You know I will explore that on BoL one day, but like you said, not here, not now. Later, baby. I’ll be back later.)
I have nothing more to add other than a wry smile and to tell you go check out Taj and the sisters over in this week’s Cover section.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. Just listened to that Little Junior Parker cut and I have to respond with Ray Charles and his version of “Worried Life Blues.” This is from Blues + Jazz, an album from Ray's early, early Atlantic years (mid-to-late fifties). You’ll understand why I wanted to add it as soon as you hear it. The blues was a common well the village drank from; regardless of if, when or how we cried, sweated or pissed, we each did it in our own way but the essential ingredient, i.e. the water, came from the same well. And as the old skool Baptists say: "Well. Well!"
I'll be checking for it
I'm glad you put that one in there. I wanted to hear Ray's version, but I didn't have a copy. I'll be checking for it in the jukebox like everybody else.
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