The Father of Chicago Blues Essay
The Father of Chicago Blues
He is known for creating some of the greatest blues songs of all time– “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “I feel Like Going Home”, and “Hoochie Coochie Man”. His unique and distinctive voice conveyed intense feelings and emotions to audiences all over the globe, while his guitar skills inspired some of rock history’s greatest legends. He was known as Muddy Waters; a man whose raw talent and tenacity led him out of Mississippi, to Chicago, to winning several industry awards, and finally into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Much of the development of the blues genre, as well rock and roll, has been accredited to him– and rightly so. Bringing the heart and soul of blues music to Chicago, Muddy Waters single-handedly led the progression of Delta blues to Chicago blues, from which much of today’s popular music has sprung. The origin of the blues dates back centuries. In commercial terms, it was once referred to as “race music”, as the artists were primarily black and the music was marketed to black audiences.
The genre eventually became know as “rhythm and blues” or “R&B”– a music style rooted in Africa and brought over to the US when slaves would sing African spirituals while working on plantations. American Popular Music (2006) describes R&B as such: R&B, as the genre came to be known, was a loose cluster of styles, rooted in southern fold traditions and shaped by the experience of returning military personnel and hundreds of thousands of black Americans who had migrated to urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles during and just after the war.
(p. 38) As the music world expanded, sub-genres of the blues came into existence. Delta blues, jump blues, and Chicago electric blues were the most popular categories. Muddy Waters himself grew up singing Delta blues songs from that region, until he moved north to Chicago. It was in Chicago that his sound evolved and he was labeled as a “Chicago electric blues” artist. During the 1940s, Chicago became one of the most rapidly-growing cities in terms of black neighborhoods, which fueled the popularity and demand for blues music.
Although Delta blues artists had been a favorite amongst the African American community for decades before the emergence of Muddy Waters, it was a new type of blues sound that soon became the iconic music of Chicago: A very different urban blues tradition of the postwar era, Chicago electric blues, derived more directly from the rural Mississippi Delta… The musical taste of black Chicagoans, many of them recent migrants from the Deep South, tended toward rougher, grittier styles, closely linked to African American folk traditions but also reflective of their new, urban orientation… Muddy Waters exemplifies these developments.
(Starr & Waterman, 2006, p. 41) The Chicago blues scene was essentially a combination of both northern and southern influences. This is an example of how music, as well as society, evolves in order to embrace a new way of life while retaining its roots. Although people still embraced musical themes from traditional Delta blues– frustration, loneliness, pain– they were looking for a more developed and refined sound. This new blues style, Chicago electric blues, soon became personified through Muddy Waters.
His voice contained all of the grittiness and rough sounds of traditional African American music, yet his innovative guitar skills and musical phrasing appealed to audiences who were demanding a more urban feel. Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1913 in Issaquena County, Mississippi– however, he later changed his birth year to 1915 in order to appear younger to the entertainment industry. He was born to Berta Grant, who was only a teenager at the time, and Ollie Morganfield, a cotton farmer.
Muddy’s parents were an unconventional couple, as they never married; and after his mother passed away in 1918, his grandmother Della Grant took over in raising him. He was only three years-old at the time, and Della was an extremely young grandmother of 32 years of age when he was born. Muddy’s world seemed to revolve around music from a very early age, although he did enjoy fishing and playing down by a nearby creek. He would always get dirt on his clothes and mud on his face, which is how he was nicknamed Muddy Waters.
Muddy was not the only musical talent in the family. His father Ollie was well-known amongst locals as a very skilled singer, guitarist, and washboard-player. This seemed to fuel Muddy’s interest in music, as he began to learn how to play a variety of instruments. He improvised by turning a kerosene can into a drum, which became his first instrument, and that was followed by the accordion, a harp, and a box and stick that he made into his first guitar. He recalled, “Couldn’t do much with it, but that’s how you learn! ” (Roots, 2007).
As a teenager, Muddy began listening to blues artists such as Charlie Patton and Roosevelt Sykes. One of his greatest influences, however, was Son House. He was inspired by House’s guitar technique and would often attend live performances: “I was there every night, close to him. You couldn’t get me out of that corner, listening to him. I watched that man’s fingers and look like to me he was so good he was unlimited” (Roots, 2007). By the age of 17, Muddy was able to purchase his first guitar– a used Stella– and began making a name for himself as a local blues artist.
With his own makeshift band, Muddy performed in several local Delta clubs until he was discovered by Alan Lomax in 1941– a folklore collector who invited him to record for the Library of Congress. Lomax was searching for a blues singer comparable to Robert Johnson, whose guitar style influenced Muddy’s own way of playing. It was most likely Lomax’s encouragement that persuaded him to move to Chicago in 1943– he had been contemplating the idea for awhile, yet decided against it as he did not want to leave his grandmother.
After his move to Chicago, Muddy started working at a paper mill. Three years later, a man by the name of Sunnyland Slim helped him get signed to Aristocrat Records; but his first series of recordings proved to be unsuccessful, and he would have to earn money by driving trucks for six days out of the week, while performing nightly in local clubs. His career did not fully launch until 1948 when Aristocrat Records was sold and became Chess Records. Under this new label, he recorded his first single “Rollin’ Stone”.
It was an absolute hit, and was even used to name one of the world’s most famous rock bands– the Rolling Stones. By 1951, Muddy had a complete band with Otis Spann on the piano, Little Walter on the harmonica, Jimmie Rodgers on the second guitar, and Elgin Evans on the drums (Rolling Stone, 2009). He was now a major blues performer, creating some of the most iconic and influential songs in the music industry: Waters’s approach to the blues is different from that of blues crooners… Waters was a master of the bottleneck slide guitar technique.
He used his guitar to create a rock-stead, churning rhythm, interspersed with blues licks, which were counterpoised with his voice in a kind of musical conversation. (Starr & Waterman, 2009, p. 42) He mastered the electric guitar after moving to Chicago, as the crowds were noisier than his previous audience in the Delta, and there was a high demand for dance music. He brought the traditional blues sound up from the Mississippi Delta, turned it into a more electric sound, and Chicago electric blues was born.
It was this emotionally distressing style of guitar-playing that won him the name “The Father of Chicago Blues”, subsequently inspiring future rock artists such as Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and bands of the 1960s and 1970s British explosion (Rolling Stone, 2009). Even though Muddy’s records were mostly sold in the Delta, New Orleans, and Chicago, his reputation spanned the globe. Over the years, Muddy would be cited as a great influence for many artists, including Chuck Berry, Leg Zeppelin, and Angus Young of AC/DC. His songs would also be covered by other industry heavyweights such as Cream, Etta James, and Bob Dylan.
Muddy’s success was later signified by several Grammy Awards, Blues Foundation Awards, and his posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 (Rolling Stone, 2009). It is impossible to think of history’s greatest blues artists without naming Muddy Waters– he epitomizes Chicago blues. Today’s artists still praise his name and discuss how he has impacted the music world with his talent and innovation. Coming up from the Delta, he brought the true soul of blues to Chicago while simultaneously melding it with a more popular sound.
He created a new sub-genre in music; and his voice and phenomenal guitar skills won him the respect of the entire music industry, both past and present. References Rolling Stone. (2009). Retrieved July 28, 2009, from http://www. rollingstone. com/ artists/muddywaters/biography Roots, A. (2007). So Into Blues. Retrieved July 28, 2009, from http://www. blues- finland. com/english/muddy_waters_biography_1. html Starr, L. , & Waterman, C. (2006). American Popular Music: The Rock Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press.