Where would we be could we not respond to the joy and pains of the Black experience through our music?
Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield sometime between 1913 and 1915 in extreme poverty in the American south. He grew up a sharecropper picking cotton alongside his family members on Stovall Plantation in the Mississippi Delta. His grandmother gave him the name “Muddy” because he frequently played in the mud of the nearby Mississippi River. This is the story of the Black experience that has deep roots in the blues and permeates through today’s hip-hop. It is the ability to find joy and make the most out of your surroundings.
Muddy Waters upbringing, surrounded by working class Black people just out of slavery, gave him a deeper relationship to the true blues ideology that made him a standout early in his career. Library of Congress archivist Stephanie Hall defined this genre of music that arose in the late 19th century as, “usually one singer accompanied by a guitar and characterized by ‘bent’ or ‘blue’ notes, not on the standard scale. The songs expressed a longing, loss, or desire.” Muddy was able to soak up not only the ability to play extraordinarily but also had the soul of the people of around him and dripping from his vocal cords.
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax spent decades traveling across the United States and neighboring islands gathering the sounds of the people. He had already exposed the world to legendary folk singers Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie when he arrived on Muddy Waters doorstep in 1941. He was given $20 and two test vinyl record pressings in exchange for sharing his songs. Muddy recalled hearing his voice back on record and recognizing that he could play just as well as the other albums he had heard. The songs were later released on Testament Records garnering a huge response including a write up in Rolling Stone magazine.
Unable to find the means to record in the Delta, Muddy made a move first to St. Louis and later to Chicago. The modified location would change his life forever. While he kept a job as a truck driver, Muddy Waters was also cutting records and making his way through the club scene in Chicago. In March on 1947 his long-archived songs finally saw the light of day on the famed Chess Records.
“I think it released 10,000 (units) in Chicago on Friday evening. Saturday at one o’clock you couldn’t buy one,” Waters told an interviewer at the famed Ash Grove roots music venue in the early 1970s.
Muddy didn’t feel his popularity with the youth of the city of Chicago was appreciated in midway through his career. With the Great Migration taking place between 1916 and 1970 America saw the largest population shift of all time. Six million Black people relocated from the South to the West, Midwest, and Northeast. With the cruel legacy of slavery and Jim Crow weighing heavy on their conscience, many Black people wanted to shake any relationship to their past struggles. The sorrow you could feel in Muddy’s voice and guitar for many was too much of a reminder of their past. By the early 1970s Waters was playing mostly to young white college audiences thanks to being covered by white rock n’ roll acts like the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. The Stones actually got their name from a 1950s song by Muddy Waters titled “Rolin’ Stone.”
When asked why Black youth weren’t as attracted to the music during the Black Arts and Black Power movements Waters stated, “maybe they think if they play that music it’s like slavery times. Maybe they think it’s like Uncle Tom. I don’t know why they changed their mind on it.” In this you can see a direct relationship to how a lot of content heavy hip-hop is disregarded in the mainstream today.
Muddy Waters enjoyed extreme success throughout the late 1950s up until his passing from a heart attack in 1983 at age 68. He was a six-time Grammy Award winner for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame included five of his songs as part of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock n’ Roll.” His music has helped to shape the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, Van Morrison, the Black Crowes, and Doors. Walters was also featured on a 29-cent postage stamp in 1994. His legacy lives on through countless young people that decide to pick up a guitar, sing, or rhyme from deep down in their soul.
“Mannish Boy,” “Rollin’ Stone,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Workin’,” “I’m Ready” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”
Legacy is a new series chronicling the many contributions of Black musicians and artists by writer, musician, and assistant chair of Professional Music at Berklee College of Music, Toki Wright.