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Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues by Mitsutoshi Inaba (review)
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Every student of the blues knows that Willie Dixon was the central figure of the Chicago blues scene in the mid- and late twentieth century. As writer, performer, producer, and mediator between the huge egos of the artists and financial backers who made so many great recordings that are still fresh today, Dixon not only held these elements together, but he turned them into a creative engine that propelled the blues out of its rural origins and into a creative force of global dimensions. In this impressive volume, Mitsutoshi Inaba adds to our understanding of Dixon’s role with his analysis of Dixon’s recognition early in life that the blues is a form of secular religion with the power to explain, advise, comfort, and heal those who wish to find salvation in this world rather than a presumed next. Thus, although the church and the blues are often considered opposites, Willie Dixon really was a “preacher of the blues.”

Dixon was as consistent a thinker as any philosopher. He refused the draft during World War II because he did not want to fight for a nation with institutionalized racist domestic policies, serving ten months in jail as the price of his honesty. But he also disagreed with Martin Luther King, Jr., over the effectiveness of non-violence, insisting that the use of force in self- defense is proper. He approached every moral issue with the same intelligence and insistence on applying what he found to life as it is lived.

Perhaps the most important feature of Dixon’s viewpoint is his recognition that although he had a vision of how to approach the world, he was sensible enough to realize that he was not always the person to deliver that message. He was also humble enough to write the songs that other artists could present better than he could, submerging his own talents in his writing and by playing bass in the rhythm section. He compiled a large backlog of songs that expressed his viewpoint rather than tailoring the songs to a particular singer. Consequently, every Willie Dixon song is at bottom a Willie Dixon song that describes something in which he believed. Although the tenets of Dixon’s “preaching” came from his own observation of daily reality, he gave the songs to performers whose personalities fit the message of the song. Muddy Waters projected confidence in himself as seen most powerfully in Dixon’s composition “Hoochie Coochie Man.” That confidence translated into the role of leader of the people, not in a political but in a local, social sense, which, the blues reminds us, is what really matters anyway. Another Dixon/Waters song, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” challenges the repressive quality of conventional religion with its insistence on the value and joy of sexual attraction.

Dixon also analyzed the personalities and performances of the other artists with whom he worked. He saw Little Walter as a nice guy who might be someone’s perfect boyfriend and aimed his songs at a younger audience. One of Walter’s most popular numbers, “My Babe,” is a song about sexual success. Unlike Muddy, who boasts of his own power, Walter praises his mate, saying she is “a true little baby.” Inaba notes that song is about the importance of fidelity, but “also about one of the basic human needs, the idea of ownership.

Bo Diddley was, like Muddy, a sexual seed-bearer, but he was also funny and projected a bizarre image that made audiences unsure just how to take him. Dixon played on this confusion with such comic pieces as “Diddy-Wah-Diddy” and one of his most important songs for Bo Diddley, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” which expresses Dixon’s view that true value lies not in image, appearance, or reputation, but in belief and behavior. This, of course, is supposed to be a tenet of most religions, but it is often forgotten as conventional religionists condemn, say, blues singers, not for what they say but for the environment in which they appear.

Howlin’ Wolf was a sexual figure like Muddy, but his huge size and over-the-top performances...



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