When the Beatles first came to America they told everyone they wanted to see Muddy Waters; one reporter asked: “Muddy Waters … Where’s that?”
Paul McCartney laughed and said, “Don’t you know who your own famous people are here?”
McKinley Morganfield was born in April of 1913. The world knows him a little better by his stage name, Muddy Waters. He grew up on a plantation in Mississippi, and learned to play the blues from the source, in the Mississippi Delta. Many important blues musicians never left these humble country roots, and produced music with raw emotion and expression that cuts to the core of the human existence.
What separates Muddy Waters from these Delta bluesmen is where he took the blues and delivered that music to the world. In 1943, at the age of 30, he traveled north to Chicago to become a professional musician. The clubs in Chicago were crowded and noisy. It was here that the blues became electrified, literally. The performances had to be amplified and Muddy took up the electric guitar, in the process becoming the father of the modern Chicago blues. There were and are plenty of important musicians in the Chicago blues scene, but Muddy Waters is one of the most important.
This is music that is direct with its expression. There is little room for multiple interpretations, and no question about its meaning. This authentic outpouring of feeling just hits you in the gut, and sometimes a bit lower. This is not virtuosity of guitar technique, nor of vocal singing technique. However, if music is supposed to express something, the music of Muddy Waters is a virtuosity of emotional expression.
Blues music and Muddy Waters have gone in and out of fashion several times over the decades. There have been many blues “revivals”, most notably in the 1960’s. Muddy Waters traveled to England in 1958, and his performances contributed greatly to the popularity of the blues there. Many British groups and performers incorporated the blues into their sound and brought it right back to America. Groups like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream have had hit records of tunes learned directly from Muddy Waters’ playing.
The button-downed New England town of Newport, Rhode Island isn’t the first place in the world you think of when you think of blues music. But the Newport Jazz Festival was where Muddy Waters and his band recorded his first live album. This long running summer music festival has produced some great live recordings, and Muddy Waters at Newport 1960 is no exception. This is essential listening for fans of all sorts of music, and it is a performance that brought authentic blues to a whole new generation of people.
Muddy Waters died in his sleep at home in Illinois in the year 1983. He died of heart failure, but I see that cause of death containing two meanings. There is the clinical sense of the phrase, meaning medical (cardiology) heart failure. But McKinley Morganfield had spent his entire musical life pouring out his “heart” in his music. The “head” is the home of the intellect, but the human “heart” represents the home of emotion and soul. I prefer to think that Muddy Waters gave the world everything he had to give, from his heart, and when it finally ran out, he died peacefully in his sleep. You won’t see that listed on any death certificate, but I think it will make sense to you too after spending some time listening to Muddy Waters records.