Muddy Waters: Biography, Songs & Influences

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Learn about the life of singer and guitar player Muddy Waters and his influence on American popular music. Discover how Muddy helped create the Chicago blues, and how his guitar playing and songs influenced a generation of rock musicians.

Early Life: The Mississippi Delta Years

Imagine yourself walking down a dusty street in the Mississippi Delta in 1933. A young man is sitting on the sidewalk playing an old guitar and singing a sad song. You listen for a moment, and for some reason you feel a little better about your own troubles. You've just felt the power of the blues. The young man's name is Muddy, and one day he will be one of the most influential musicians in the world.

Muddy Waters' early life in the Mississippi Delta remains somewhat of a mystery. Even the date of his birth is hard to pin down, but somewhere between 1913 and 1915 he was born in Issaquena County, Mississippi. His mother named him McKinley Morganfield, but everyone called him Muddy because it's said he enjoyed playing in the local creek. Muddy later took the stage name Muddy Waters.

As a child, Muddy listened to music when he went to church. He also heard the music played at parties and in the streets. That music was called the blues. Blues musicians, or bluesmen, played acoustic instruments, such as the guitar, and they sang down to earth, sensual songs about the struggles of being poor and black in the rural South. Some called it the devil's music, but Muddy loved the blues.

Muddy learned to play the harmonica, and he tried to sing like blues legend Son House. Inspired by the records of great bluesman Robert Johnson, Muddy took up the guitar. In 1941, at the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi, Muddy performed for researchers from the Library of Congress, where his music was first recorded. Many of the songs he sang would later become Muddy Waters' classics, including 'I Feel Like Going Home' and 'I Can't Be Satisfied.' These are the oldest known recordings of Muddy's music.

Chicago: Electrifying the Blues

In 1943, Muddy left his sharecropper farm and headed north. He moved to Chicago where he met one of Chicago's top bluesmen, Big Bill Broonzy. They became friends, and from then on Big Bill was a big influence on the way Muddy approached his life and music.

Muddy played at house parties and at South Side blues clubs. He soon discovered that his acoustic guitar could not be heard over the big city crowds. Looking for a solution he tried a relatively new instrument called the electric guitar. The moment Muddy plugged in his electric guitar, blues music changed forever. He combined the electric guitar's unique sounds with the style of the acoustic delta blues, and this new electric-based, urban style would come to be called the Chicago blues.

In 1948, Muddy signed a contract with Chess Records. He recorded many hits for the Chess label, including 'I Can't Be Satisfied' (1948), 'Rollin' Stone' (1950), 'I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man' (1954), 'Mannish Boy' (1955), and 'Got My Mojo Working' (1957) all of which were destined to become classics.

Muddy's band now included some of Chicago's best bluesmen, including Little Walter Jacobs (harmonica), Jimmy Rogers (guitar), Otis Spann (piano), and Elga Edmonds (drums). Muddy had become one of the top musicians in Chicago. It was time for him to help the rest of the world discover the power of the blues.

Muddy Inspires a New Generation

Muddy left Chicago in 1958 and took his music to England. He was surprised to find the English knew and loved the blues. In the U.S., the blues had remained relatively unknown outside of the African-American community.

However, the British had never heard anything like Muddy's brand of Chicago blues. The loud, wailing, soulful sounds that came from his electric guitar would influence many of the great English rock guitarists of the 1960s, including Cream's Eric Clapton, the Beatles' George Harrison, and the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones even named themselves after Muddy's song 'Rollin' Stone.' These young Englishmen mixed the blues with rock and roll and sent it back to America in the form of 1960s rock. With the help of this British Invasion, blues music left the delta and Chicago's South Side and conquered the rest of the world.

Muddy Waters in 1979
Muddy Waters in 1979

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