Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Original Rollin' Stone: Muddy Waters at 100


Muddy's cabin at the Stovall Plantation
Today marks the 100th birthday of the most important blues artist ever to walk the dusty fields of the Mississippi Delta or the streets of Chicago's South Side. McKinley Morganfield, better known by his nickname "Muddy Waters" (given to him as a child by the grandmother who raised him), was born at Jug's Corner in Issaquena County, Mississippi, not far from Rolling Fork, in the heart of the poverty stricken corner of the state south of Memphis known as the Delta. Growing up on the Stovall Plantation in Clarksdale, Muddy quickly gained an appreciation for, and later a proficiency at, the blues music that reigned supreme in the region's juke joints and weekend parties. And, naturally gifted musician that he was, he quickly gravitated toward the music of the two men whom time has demonstrated were the greatest practitioners of America's most significant folk music genre: Eddie "Son" House and Robert Johnson. Muddy would prove to be a faithful disciple of these men and the most important bridge between their work and the fledgling genre of rock and roll that developed in the 1950s.

Muddy, with Willie Dixon and a youthful
Buddy Guy (
Muddy's career began as a sort of accident. In 1941 Alan Lomax, at the behest of the Library of Congress, went to the Stovall Plantation to record various country blues artists for posterity. He was pointed in Muddy's direction, and wound up recording a number of songs in the singer and guitarist's living room, among them the classic "I Be's Troubled" (see below), later recorded in Chicago as "I Can't Be Satisfied," which would remain one of his most recognizable songs till the day he died in 1983. Later in the decade Muddy, like thousands of his contemporaries, moved to the Windy City. Eventually he was signed by Leonard and Phil Chess to record for their Chess Records, the label that would also be the home for such luminaries as Chester Burnett (Howlin' Wolf), "Little" Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Chuck Berry. His early records, in many instances, amounted to a simple electrification of the Delta Blues sound. Later in the decade, however, he expanded his sound, incorporating harder-edged rhythmic dynamics and a full band sound (guitar, bass, harp, drums) that became the template for what is now known as "Chicago blues," not to mention its popular offspring, rock and roll. After the twin depredations of psychedelia in the late '60s and the singer-songwriter trend of the early '70s took their toll on Muddy's (and other bluesmen's) popularity, Waters's career was resurrected at the age of 64, when Johnny Winter reached out to him and produced the final three records of the great man's career, beginning with 1977's Hard Again. Amazingly, Waters sounded as fresh and powerful then as he had in his 1950s heyday.

Muddy with Johnny Winter, late '70s
I first learned of Muddy Waters from Mick Jagger, who always credited him as being the Rolling Stones' foremost influence (Jagger and Brian Jones, of course, named their band after one of Muddy's most famous songs, a remake of the traditional "Catfish Blues" which he named "Rollin' Stone"; Waters reciprocated the compliment by referring to the Stones as "his boys" after meeting them in Chicago in 1964 and hearing their breakneck-paced recording of Muddy's "I Just Want To Make Love To You"). From my teen years I had always loved the blues. But I knew the genre second hand, from bands like the Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, and later from such blues-rock gunslingers like Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But in 1989, when I decided to update my vinyl collection by purchasing a few compact discs, one of the first two I bought was a copy of Waters's The Best of Muddy Waters, which was a compilation of his early Chess singles from the late '40s and early '50s. Never had I heard anything like what I discovered on that album. Strange, brooding, sparse, Muddy's declamatory baritone and stinging electric slide complemented by Little Walter's peerless harp—utterly sublime! Listening to Waters (and later to such artists as the Wolf) gave me insight as to what made bands like the Stones and Zeppelin so special, and why more recent bands just could not cut the musical mustard. Then, as now, so-called "rock" bands—not to mention execrable "pop" groups—simply could not measure up. The only hope for the music's future, as I see it, is for today's "artists" to take a history lesson and rediscover what made the music great in the first place.

I leave you with five performances by Waters: (1) his 1941 recording of "I Be's Troubled" at Stovall Plantation; (2) his Chess recording of "Rollin' Stone" from February 1950; (3) "Louisiana Blues" from October 1950; (4) a live version of his slow blues classic "Long Distance Call" from 1968; and (5) his recording of "Mannish Boy" with Johnny Winter from 1977.

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