Muddy Waters – Written For American Songcatcher

Born under a Southern springtime sun, McKinley Morganfield was born just near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Though many amongst his collective of fans and admirers reckon by all accounts he may have been born in a minute farming community in Issaquena County, Morganfield always cited The Fork as his hometown.


It is not just his birthplace which is shrouded in some kind of uncertainty, fore his birthday, though it falls on April 5th, could have taken place in either 1913, 1914 or 1915. The latter is thought to be the most definitive, recognised most notably by ‘Muddy’ himself.


What is certain is that despite hosting Teddy Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt, Rolling Fork was known for little else. McKinley’s mother died when he was too young to properly remember her, but his father, OIlie, was an entertainer at local cookouts when he wasn’t committed to sharecropping – it was this ferocious work ethic which meant that McKinley was raised predominantly by his grandmother.


The commanding matriarch, Della Grant, would shape Morganfield’s life in a number of ways. Perhaps the most tangible is bestowing upon him the moniker for which he would become famous. On the cottonwood plantation just outside Mayersville, the infant McKinley would splash away most of the day in the most mud-spattered creeks he could find. Thus, ‘Muddy’ Morganfield was christened. ‘Waters’ would follow later, a gift from numerous friends with whom he would cause harmless chaos with.


Grant moved herself and Muddy to the Stovall plantation, leaving behind Rolling Fork for the comparably sprawling Clarksdale. Placed firmly on the delta in which had spawned the blues pantheon of Son House, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, Muddy thrived as he became enamoured with the rich music tradition of the area.


Inheriting a diligent approach to working on the farms around his home, Muddy claimed later that “If I wasn’t a good musician then, I felt that sooner or later I would be a good musician. I felt it in me.” It was this seemingly inherent connection with music was a driving factor behind his later success.


Muddy lived in what most would consider impoverished conditions today, but none of this would stop him when, aged thirteen, he picked up the harmonica for the first time. In just a few months, Morganfield was playing for tips (and meals!) at local dinners.


Surrounded by guitars every which way he looked in the Delta, Muddy was fortunate enough to liaise with the great Son House (renowned nowadays for songs like ‘Death Letter Blues’ and ‘Preachin Blues’). House leaned into the young Morganfield’s obvious proclivity for guitar playing, and even went so far as to demonstrate using a bottle neck slide. At seventeen, Muddy started playing guitar himself.


As the 1940s rolled around, and war enveloped Europe for the second time in just three decades, in his small corner of the rural South, Muddy took his guitar and played in bands at local cookouts, dances and dinners. It was in the barmy summer of 1941, though, that serendipity reared its fortunate head for our young protagonist. 


Acclaimed folklorists, Alan Lomax and John Work travelled to Clarksdale on behalf of the Library Of Congress with one mission in mind: to find the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Despite rumours circulating even into the present day of Johnson selling his soul to the devil in return for his talents, he had not gained immortality. What Lomax and Work had not realised was that Johnson had in fact passed years before, at the age of 27 (spawning the prevalent myth of the so-called Twenty-Seven Club, of which Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain are all a part of). 


As in life, so was his death shrouded in rumour, folklore and downright untruths – the most salacious cause was rumoured to have been poisoning whilst performing at a dance in Greensboro. Anyhow, Lomax and Work’s trip appeared to have been fruitless.


That is, until they stumbled across the path of a young Muddy Morganfield, thanks to a tip from his friend and mentor, the venerable Son House.

Muddy performed two songs for Lomax, Work and the Library of Congress, his first two ever committed to record; they were “I Be’s Troubled” and “Country Blues”. The budding bluesman left such a mark on the conservationists that they returned to the Stovall plantation two years later and once again recorded him – not much had changed in the months since the two sides had last met. What nobody could anticipate was how much would change following this second meeting.


As a harmonica player in the Silas Green band, it represented his first ever professional gig – that inkling he alluded to of always reckoning he would ‘make it’ was starting to come to life. However, the middling Clarksdale couldn’t satisfy the needs of the ambitious Muddy Morganfield, and in May 1943 like so many in what was to be termed The Great Migration (a phenomenon of rural black workers relocating from the South to the metropolis), he hopped on a northbound train to Chicago.


Muddy embraced Chicago immediately, and according to him, the city welcomed him reciprocally. In fact, times were very good. Compared to the sparse townships and plantations of Mississippi, Chicago was sprawling. Known for its bold architecture and productive steel mills, the city’s distinct skyline provided a backdrop for new beginnings; Muddy soon found work and his own apartment. In 1944, Muddy purchased his first electric guitar.


Big Bill Broonzy, a regular of the Chicago music scene for years took Morganfield under his wing and introduced him to a host of fellow regulars playing the bar rooms, clubs and dances on the city’s South Side. As Muddy put it: “Little Walter, Jimmy Rodgers and myself we would go around looking for bands that were playing. We called ourselves The Headhunters, ’cause we’d go in and if we got a chance we were gonna burn ’em.”


It would be three years until Muddy recorded in Chicago, but in the eyes of 20th Century and Columbia, they didn’t break any new ground than the urban blues put to tape a decade previously; none of them were released commercially.


Thankfully, Muddy received another chance when friend Sunnyland Slim was invited to record a session. According to popular legend, Muddy was delivering a set of Venetian blinds when he received word of the upcoming session. Informing his boss that his cousin had been found dead in an alleyway the day before, he told him he would need to take the rest of the day off. Slim and Morganfield went on to record two songs each for Leonard Chess’ label, Aristocrat Records.


Another session was swiftly arranged by a black scout at the label who was suitably impressed with Muddy’s blues-playing chops. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” were born out of the session. In fact, the pair of songs resulted at long last in a record, though it wasn’t for the want of Mr Chess to veto its release. “I can’t understand what he’s singing!” he complained to his partner. It was only his business partner and her tenacity which saw its release.


What made the songs so unique was the choice to eschew the typically smooth-blues style that typified Chicago blues, and stripped everything back to just Big Crawford’s thudding bass, and Muddy’s own voice and electric bottleneck guitar.


On a Saturday in April 1948, the single “Aristocrat 1305” was released. By the afternoon of the same day, the initial pressing was all but sold out. Venturing down to Chicago’s culturally significant Maxwell Street and ducking into a record store, Muddy was irate at his work being sold for $1.10 rather than the previously-agreed 79 cents. What was worse, though, was that the record had been such a success that the store were only selling to each customer just a single copy. “But I’m the man who made it!” an irritated Morganfield exclaimed to the store clerk.


Perhaps it was the public acclaim of the record, or maybe the financial success of his first record with Aristocrat that made Leonard Chess reevaluate his initial opinion of Muddy and his music. After all, not only was Muddy a hit in the studio, but he was making his mark on the considerable live circuit Chicago had to offer.


Chess quickly arranged a new string of sessions, once more backed by Big Crawford on bass guitar, and the pair laid down tracks like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Rollin’ Stone”. However, Muddy had a penchant for playing with other groups, though obviously, these sessions would be released under their respective labels, and not Aristocrat. Wanting to keep Muddy’s distinctive audio signature to Aristocrat and nobody else, Leonard Chess was incensed. Having already appeared on Baby Face Leroy’s popular “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, Chess commanded that Muddy cut his own version for his label.


In 1950, Aristocrat saw a genesis and, as the new decade began, it became Chess records. Around the same time, Little Walter, regarded then as he is now as one of the most eminent harmonica players, joined Muddy Waters’ band. Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son, who was about seven or eight at the time, recalled Muddy’s striking green suit and his shoes made from pony skin. As Marshall got older, he recalled to Rolling Stone following Muddy’s death that Waters’ music was the first that really seemed ‘sexual’ in its nature – not just in it’s lyrics and chugging blues rhythm, but citing the presence of what he described as groups of ‘heavy black women’ during recording sessions to stimulate the music and the musicians.


With Jimmy Rodgers on guitar alongside Muddy himself, the band and their sound continued to evolve and over the next two years, they recorded songs like “Louisiana Blues” and “Early Morning Blues” when their performing schedule allowed. By 1951, however, Walter had left the band and was duly replaced by Junior Wells.


As the band evolved exponentially with their charismatic frontman, the middle of the decade proved to be what many blues aficionados and scholars can agree on as the peak of Muddy Waters’ career. Indeed, it came as a drastic counterpoint to the sparsity of his earlier releases when Muddy, clearly enamoured with the sound of his sizeable band allowed, embraced the more “electrified” sound which came to be his signature.


It was during this same period that Waters and his band recorded songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy”. In the summer of 1954, his first LP sold more than 4000 copies, and stayed at the top of the charts until the Fall rolled around. The fifties represented a time when, if not at the top then certainly near it, Muddy recorded amongst the pantheon of Chicago blues, fraternising with the likes of Buddy Guy, Pinetop Perkins, and bass-player Willie Dixon (who would go on to write much of the music for Muddy’s work in the latter half of the decade).


In 1960, as the phenomenon of rock and roll grabbed the world by its collar, Muddy and his contemporaries continued to propagate the blues to the world as it’s own distinct and proud tradition. Whilst some scholars and blues historians have characterised the sixties with a decline in blues music and its wider reception, Muddy’s performance at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival introduced his music and as an ambassador, the genre, to a whole new generation of young, white listeners. The standout song of his set was the thumping “Got My Mojo Working”, and that proved to be a regular request in the years to come.


Bonnie Raitt recounted how Fred McDowell and Muddy took her under their wing at the festival, claiming that Waters was especially loving to the nineteen-year-old, impressed with her instrumental acumen.


Some of these listeners, now appreciating Muddy’s music from across the Atlantic, were forming their own groups. Namely, Keith Richards remembered hearing Muddy for the first time that same year. Richards described Muddy’s music as making everything he’d heard before that moment ‘explainable’ to him. 


His close friend and soon-to-be-frontman, Mick Jagger, articulated the shock Muddy had on his initial British audiences; ‘instead of one sultry Negro man playing the blues…he came out with the band and made a deafening noise. And they all walked out and asked for their money back.’ The mark left on popular music was to be indelible, as a small outfit from London took their name from  one of his inaugural records – they were The Rolling Stones.


This new audience reinvigorated Waters, and his albums in the coming years were directed towards this new generation of fans. Perhaps the most cutting edge of these albums was The London Sessions, whereby the now-veteran bluesman teamed up with the Brit Invasion’s youngest and brightest, Cream’s Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. At the same time, he cut Fathers and Sons, with Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield.


As the haze of the sixties cleared and the decidedly more rock-orientated seventies came into view, Waters took on the unlikeliest of managers – blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter. Winter took Muddy out on the road with him, and indeed, rekindled the spark of excitement unseen in some time in Muddy’s extensive discography. The most celebrated of their collaborations was “Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters”. Released on Columbia, the record proved to be a tour de force of what had made Muddy the household name on the Blues circuit he was nearly three decades prior. Muddy confided in his one-time manager Scott Cameron in 1978: “This is the best point of my life. I’m glad it came before I died, I can tell you. Feels great.”


This best point was seemingly boundless. In that same year, Muddy appeared on the bill for the farewell concert of The Band. Titled “The Last Waltz” and directed by a budding Martin Scorsese, this footage ensured that Muddy’s unique charisma would be immortalised on film. 


It wasn’t only his fans which celebrated this opus record and heavy touring schedule. In 1980, Muddy’s peers graced him with an induction into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. The following year, Waters recorded what was to be his final record, ‘King Bee’,


On April 30th 1983, Muddy unexpectedly passed as a result of a heart attack, though his eulogy spread in an issue or Rolling Stone magazine shortly after implored readers to remember this: Muddy left one hell of a mark, and worked as often as he wanted for good money, enjoying the rest of his time in his two-story timber-framed house in suburban Chicago, a far cry from the Stovall plantation of his youth.


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