The title of Jamie Brett’s road-trip DIY zine Muddy Waters suggests that it carries a certain awareness—like a Bo Diddley cigar box electric guitar. McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters, was a blues musician who took the rural acoustic sounds of Son House’s and Robert Johnson’s Delta Blues to Chicago and made it urban electric in the late 1940s to early 1950s. Bo Diddley, another blues musician, followed by taking the tradition of using an empty cigar box as primitive guitar made from available resources, electrified it, and innovated it into a signature sound as he moved from the blues and closer to what would become modern rock and roll. The two musicians along with many others who migrated from rural to urban, modernized a musical tradition and made rock and roll what it is today.
Muddy Waters by UK photographer Jamie Brett takes an approach similar to the lo-fi cigar box by publishing it as a zine but whereas Bo Diddley transformed a tradition, Brett’s zine remains in that do-it-yourself lo-fi convention. Brett’s photographs were made on a road trip from New York City to Texas and consider the relationship between rural and urban America. The title refers not to the famous blues musician Muddy Waters but rather, describes Brett’s encounter with and response to the Texas highway. “[W]ith a bottle of gas station Aquafina…” he writes in the opening passage that begins the zine, “…we muddy the waters.” On the facing page is a photograph of a crosswalk signal covered by cardboard, the otherwise illuminated directional indicators blocked from view as the journey from New York to Texas begins.
Almost simultaneously to the acoustic to electric, rural to urban, musical migration started by Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, in 1955, Switzerland born photographer Robert Frank was photographing the road trip that would become The Americans and since, the road trip has informed American photography like the blues has informed rock and roll. And like the blues to the rock and roll ear, the road trip is very familiar to the photographic eye. Built upon a twelve bar blues scale, many blues songs can sound the same but can still be good. Many blues musicians cover one another’s songs. In doing so they convey the same awareness. It is distinctly American to borrow past traditions and expressions that speak to a more contemporary American experience. Whereas the rural Mississippi Delta and urban Chicago are dissimilar in many ways, they share similarity in the blues what a road trip from New York to Texas might do the same by building upon American road trip photographic tradition which when done well, examines America broadly. Brett’s photographs are less about America and more about the road trip itself. Specifically, they are about Brett’s experience on the road. An experience that while personal, is not marked by anything all that remarkable. A line from the opening passage included in Muddy Waters reads, “It’s not that often that I feel this pedestrian.” Bleak and self-examining is in many ways however, contemporary American photography.
The photographs in Muddy Waters are not all that optimistic and where they missed on the potential as a self-aware road-trip zine that the title suggests, they do hit on a dark tone not unlike The Americans or the Great Migration—the movement of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. Segregation and racial ideologies that informed the Jim Crow cast system of the South informed the movement, which overlapped and informed the blues movement from rural to urban. The blues migration and Robert Frank’s The Americans, although not informed by one another, simultaneously regarded the American prospect with a certain unpromising outlook. It is no wonder then that Frank went on to film the documentary Cocksucker Blues, which followed The Rolling Stones—who borrowed heavily from the blues while singing of loss and despair—on a equally disparaging tour. “Things look so lonesome, down that road ahead” sang Muddy Waters on the John Lee Hooker penned song Lonesome Road Blues which Waters covered and released in 1960. The song sings like settled in despair—a new decade for an entire demographic and musical migration to a more hopeful place that turns out, has its own set of problems. African-Americans faced housing shortages and job exploitation in their new urban homes. The Great Migration wasn’t the hoped for payoff, but it was closer than before. Robert Frank captured that same less-than-optimisitc tone in The Americans as does subsequent road trip and American travel inspired work from non-Americans like Joachim Brohm, Sanne Peper, and Gerry Badger. In that tradition is where Brett’s Muddy Waters finds itself but also where it struggles. It reads like a missed opportunity. Brett’s blurry photographs shot from the car do not work but empty plastic chairs and the photographs that conflate NYC urban with Texas rural suggest, even if lacking self-awareness, that adversity is universal and a rural to urban relationship has existed for a long while in America.
The road—not necessarily the destination—is lonesome and can lead to dead ends and detours. The road trip and personal narrative has become an insular space for a lot of contemporary photography. But like musician Muddy Waters’ relocation to Chicago, like the cover of someone else’s blues, Muddy Waters by Jamie Brett wants something more—a good place to begin a journey when it is your own.