Muddy Waters: They Called Him Mud

Ask about McKinley Morganfield and you’ll probably get a blank stare. But ask about Muddy Waters and you’ll probably get at least a spark of recognition. People may not know exactly who Muddy Waters is or what he did, but the name stills rings familiar. He did something.

Muddy Waters gave us the names of two of our most enigmatic rock institutions: Rolling Stone Magazine and The Rolling Stones. Yes, Muddy Waters put his stamp on American blues music and opened the door for the British rock invasion of the Sixties. Taken from the lyrics of his song Rollin’ Stone a revitalized Catfish Blues that Muddy recorded in 1948 for Chase records. 

But how did McKinley Morganfield born in Issaquena County, Missississippi in 1913 become the man who brought the Delta Blues out of the South, infused them with urban sound and plugged them into the ear of a generation?

When McKinley Morganfield was three years old, he went to live with his maternal grandmother on the Stovall Plantation outside of Clarksdale, MS. It was here he was given the name Muddy for his persistence in playing in the mud holes around the Missississippi river. The name stuck and he became Muddy Waters. Along with nearly everyone else in the Missississippi Delta, Muddy worked in the cotton fields as a sharecropper. When John A. Lomax and his Alan came calling in 1941 collecting old blues songs for the Library of Congress as they had done for over a decade. Muddy was at first reluctant to talk with him. He thought he was a government man sent to bust him for the moonshine he sold on the side. But Alan won him over by taking a drink of moonshine out of his jar.

The first field recording of Muddy Waters. This is Son Sims with the fiddle.

By 1946, Muddy was ready to leave the Delta and try his luck in Chicago. He got a job working in a paper mill and played wherever he could at night. He began using an electric guitar because of the noise in the barrooms he played on Chicago’s rowdy south side. He never lost the Delta sound though and carried it over to his amplified playing. He cut a few unsuccessful records for Aristocrat Records, but when the company was bought by the Chess brothers he found his first success. During this period he made I’m You’re Hoochie Coochie Man, I’m Ready, Mannish Boy, Got My Mojo Working all blues standards. HIs records sold mainly in the Delta and Chicago, but he had listeners.

British musicians were listening to Muddy and Delta blues musicians. In 1964 The Rolling Stones made a trip to the Mississippi Delta to pay homage to their musical heroes. I can only imagine the atmosphere of a Hwy 61 Blues Juke Joint when The Rolling Stones entered. Mostly, they thought they were freaks, but they respected their genuine love for the blues.

But that’s the thing. It’s the blues. It’s music. It’s what joins us all together. It’s what gives us that sweet place of understanding. How can anyone listen to Muddy Waters and not smile? How can two people, no matter how different, not share the experience of great music and not feel a kinship? There is no popular music today that hasn’t been touched by the blues. Even country music is touched by the blues. Listen to real old blues and you’ll hear it.

One thing that has always fascinated me about the Muddy Waters’ story. The story of the blues really, is how it took a bunch of British musicians to bring them to the forefront of American culture. I grew up listening to this music because I had the good fortune of being born in the rural South where music just seems to have been everywhere. Daddy played. Granddaddy played. There was always blues music woven into the country songs they sang. I guess you don’t really think what you grow up with, what you become accustom to, what is so a part of your everyday existence is anything special. When those British bands took the blues and reinterpreted them into rock and roll, it was like seeing them for the first time. And I love it! But there is nothing like listening to Muddy Waters.

When Muddy Waters was invited to tour in England in 1968, he was greeted like royalty. He had traveled there in ’64 with Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Billed as the Gospel Blues Train the show rolled into an old train station and is an interesting slice of the blend between folk, blues and gospel. But now, audiences knew him through the rock bands that covered his music and the mostly white audiences were hungry for the blues. That tour and his willingness to play the with the rock and roll bands that were taking over the airwaves secured Muddy Waters’ rightful place in music history.

Toward the end of his life the world was blessed by the collaboration of Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter. Winter began producing Muddy in 1976 after Chess Records folded. Some of the best of Muddy Waters came out of this collaboration. The four albums made at Blue Sky Records during this time were a great successes. Probably due to Winter’s recruiting some of Muddy’s old band members and the “back to the roots” philosophy of the production. But the standout recording is, Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live with Johnny Winter sitting in on guitar. The joy in this recording is palpable! Here they are doing I’m You’re Hoochie Coochie Man written by Willie Dixon and forever making Muddy Waters the Hoochie Coochie Man.

The Stones were on their 1981 tour when they went to see Muddy Waters in Chicago at The Checkerboard Lounge, Buddy Guy’s place on the south side. He invited them on stage and well, looks like it was quite a night. Muddy famously said after the impromptu concert,”The blues had a baby, and its name was rock and roll.”

Hop on over to my You Tube channel to see more of the Stones with Muddy Waters.

The Stones were on their 1981 tour when they went to see Muddy Waters in Chicago. He invited them on stage and well, looks like it was quite a night.Hop on over to my You Tube channel to see more of the Stones with Muddy Waters. The Stones were on their 1981 tour and went to see Muddy Waters in Chicago. He invited them on stage and well, looks like it was quite a night.

One of my all time favorite performances is from Steven Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Muddy joins The Band for an absolutely inspirational rendition of Mannish Boy. He’s having so much fun. He’s a man. Spelled M-A-N.

Muddy Waters last concert appearance was in Miami with Eric Clapton. He and Clapton had grown extremely close. In fact, Clapton was the best man at Muddy’s wedding. Clapton took him on tour with him in 1979 and in Rolling Stone there is a memorial article with Clapton and others remembering the great Blues man. His influence is still felt far and wide. In fact, just last week Jack White announced his recording studio is reissuing Chess standards starting with Muddy Waters.  Jack White’s Third Man Records

I think one of the things I love most about Muddy Waters was his willingness to reach out and help other musicians. He helped so many in Chicago. Many Delta musicians found a place in his band, and he was eager to help others get a foot in the door. He helped Chuck Berry get a record deal. He was an influence on Angus Young of AC/DC. He opened for ZZ Top in 1981. Hell, I guess it’d be easier to list who Muddy Waters didn’t influence. I think I could write a blog for every decade of his life. But let me just end by adding one of my favorite Muddy Waters songs. Recorded in 1969. I Am the Blues. Yes, Mr. Mud you are indeed the blues!


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