Music of blues legend lives on
Oftentimes when we think of the blues, many descriptive words come to mind, perhaps melancholy, sorrowful, influential, emerging, and gloomy. In the 20th Century, the blues set both a musical and cultural standard that resonates worldwide today.
One of the most influential and electrifying musicians of his time was McKinley Morganfield better known as Muddy Waters. Popularly remembered as the “father of modern Chicago blues,” he was revered by generations of music fans for his gritty style and eloquent stage presence.
The emergence of blues came from many working-class, impoverished, and deeply Southern African-American citizens who were oppressed and economically challenged and expressed their feelings about everyday life through music.
The development of blues came after “field-holler” music or the famous “call and response.” This musical refrain was during slavery and in sharecropping, the latter of which Waters worked much of 30 years in at the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi. Field-hollers were communications amongst individual neighboring slaves and sharecroppers that involved singing in a holler and whooping sounds. The music was used to send messages and or express feelings of sorrow.
The blues consists of spirituals, work songs, and rhymed simple narrative ballads derived from African-American culture. Blues music typically involves the use of an electric guitar, double bass (pizzicato), piano, saxophone, and brass instruments.
According to the various records of his upbringing, Waters was born between the years of 1913 and 1915 in Rolley Fork, Miss. The year and place of his birth are up for debate as some records indicate that he was born in Jug’s Corner (Issaquena County, Miss.) in 1913. Morganfield adopted the nickname “Muddy” from his grandmother, Della Grant, who reared him after his mother passed away at an early age.
Grant was a sharecropper who worked in exchange for a small part of land. Waters’ father was a muleskinner and played the guitar during weekend gatherings. Waters grew up on Stovall Plantation which is now known as the Delta Blue Museum. Some say his nickname was given to him when Grant noticed he enjoyed playing in the muddy water of Deer Creek.
Waters was self-taught on the guitar and harmonica, usually playing alone in the cotton fields. When of age, he drove a tractor on the weekends. Waters also played the accordion, and was known to construct hand-made instruments.
One day at age 14 he saw Son House play the guitar and was inspired. By age 17 he had mastered the instrument, focusing mainly on the Delta Blues of Robert Johnson. On weekends, he operated a “juke joint” where workers could gather among themselves and enjoy music and moonshine whiskey. He never made much performing at these spots, but the experience would further his crowd appeal.
In the early 1930s, Waters played harmonica for Big Joe Williams, but due to competition for women fans, they parted ways. In 1942, Alan Lomax, the American musicologist, visited the plantation looking for new musical talent following the unexpected death of Robert Johnson. Lomax was looking for a country blues vibe on behalf of the Library of Congress and found it in Muddy. Soon came a check for twenty dollars and the first recorded sessions, followed by another visit in 1942. Testament Records released them later as Down on Stovall Plantation.
In 1943, Waters relocated to Chicago with dreams of becoming a professional and mainstream blues musician. He worked other small jobs while continuing to play in bars and clubs on the Southside of Chicago.
Among Waters’ most famous recordings were “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (1948), “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954), “Got My Mojo Working” (1956) and “Mannish Boy” from 1958.
Muddy Waters, inducted posthumously into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, died in Westmont, Ill. in 1983.