Muddy Waters: The Delta Son Never Sets

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Since Muddy was a fully formed musician by the time he arrived in Chicago, it seemed important to talk about his formative years as thoroughly as possible, and this is what we did, sitting at his kitchen table sipping Piper Heidsieck champagne and Coca Cola. He was a little reticent at first, but soon he began recalling Mississippi scenes in more detail and really enjoying himself. We rambled through that fated countryside for hours. At times the dogs in back of the house would begin to bay like hounds; Bo, his man who grew up with him on the plantation, would say something to the children in his almost impenetrable Delta accent; a suggestion of a warm breeze would waft in the screen door, and we would be there.

Muddy was born McKinly Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, April 4th, 1913. He doesn't remember anything about his parents cabin because when he was a baby his mother carried him to the country near Clarksdale, where her mother raised him. He got the nickname Muddy right away because he liked to crawl around in the mud and tried to eat it.

His grandmother lived three or four miles outside Clarksdale, on a huge plantation owned by the Stovall family. Not even white folks in the Delta had electricity in those days, and water came from a pump. Every day the able-bodied members of that household went out to work in the cotton fields. Nominally, they were farming the Stovalls' land and sharing in the proceeds from the crop. But since the Stovalls kept the books and charged the black families for seed and provisions from the plantation store, the sharecroppers usually ended up in debt after the year's tally. Men could also work for salaries, picking or chopping cotton or, later, driving a tractor. Families could raise their own vegetables and livestock to eat, milk or sell. But it was still a rough, precarious existence, one that depended on the notorious vagaries of Delta weather as much as it did on any human agency.

As far as Muddy can remember, he was born musical. ''When I was around three years old I was beatin on bucket tops and tin cans. Anything with a sound I would try to play it; I'd even take my stick and beat on the ground tryin' to get a new sound. [He still likes mud and earth. Even today, nothing seems to relax Muddy as much as getting down on his hands and knees and digging in his garden.] And whatever I beat on, I'd be hummin' my little baby song along with it. My first instrument, which a lady give me and some kids soon broke for me, was an old squeeze-box, an accordion. The next thing I had in my hand was a jew's-harp. When I was about seven I started playing the harmonica, and when I got about thirteen I was playing it very good. I should never have give it up! But when I was seventeen I switched to the guitar and put the harp down. I sold our last horse for the first guitar I had. Made fifteen dollars for him, gave my grandmother $7.50, I kept $7.50 and paid about $2.50 for my guitar.''

Even before he bought the guitar, Muddy was playing at country suppers and fish fries for pocket change, blowing his harp along with a guitarist friend named Scott. But once he had the guitar in his hands, Muddy learned fast. The basic Delta bluse repertoire – songs like ''Catfish Blues,'' which became the basis for Muddy's ''Rollin' Stone,'' or ''Dark Road Blues'' or ''Walkin' Blues'' – was readily accessible, since anybody who fooled with a guitar was able more or less to get through them. For fine points, there were masters to emulate: ''Charley Patton? He had so much showmanship in his thing, all this wild clownin' with the guitar, and he could holler! Ooh, what a voice. But Son House was the top man in my book. I always did like the bottleneck style, and he was the man doin' that then. And he had the kind of singing I liked, that preaching kind of singing.''

Son House occasionally renounced the blues and preached in churches, though never for very long until he left Mississippi. I wondered if Muddy went to church. ''Yes sir,'' he said, ''can't you hear it in my voice? Plenty of people would stay up all night and listen to the blues and go home, get ready and go to church. Back then, there was three things I wanted to be: a heck of a preacher, a heck of a ballplayer or a heck of a musician.''

When Muddy was twelve or thirteen, a neighbor bought a record player. and he began spending hours at her house, listening to Memphis Minnies ''Bumble Bee'' (the basis of his ''Honey Bee''), Lonnie Johnson's ''Careless Love'' and Pattons ''Pony Blues.'' When he took up the guitar, the first two songs he learned were from records: ''How Long Blues'' by Leroy Carr, a blues pianist who lived in Indianapolis, and ''Sittin' on Top of the World'' by a black string band, the Mississippi Sheiks. He played both of them with a slide, translating relatively urbane pieces into a stark, insistent Delta style.

Muddy never looked back once he established himself locally as a musician. ''I didn't like farming,'' he said. ''I always expected my guitar could beat driving tractors, plowing mules, chopping cotton, drawing water. Sometimes they'd want us to work Saturday, but – and Bo here can witness this – they'd look for me and I'd be gone, playing my guitar in the little town or in some juke joint. Was I a rambler? I rambled all the time. That's why I added that verse about the rollin' stone to 'Catfish Blues' and named it 'Rollin' Stone.' I was just like that, like a rollin' stone.'' Muddy recorded his classic rambler's boast in 1950. It furnished the name for the rock & roll band and for this magazine, ''But I didn't ramble that far,'' Muddy added. ''I was in love with my grandmother, she was getting old, and I didn't want to push out and leave her.''

Muddy married when he was eighteen. His bride was around seventeen, and they both had to lie about their ages at the Clarksdale courthouse. Since Muddy now had more responsibilities and less reason to ramble, his next move was to go into the Saturday night business for himself. ''First I'd have my own Saturday night dances. I got hip and started making and selling my own whiskey, playing for myself. I had my little crap table going in the back. I'd put coal oil in bottles, take a rope and hang 'em up there on the porch to let people know my dance was going on, and I had a lot of them lights for people to gamble by. Its pretty hard to see the dice sometimes in that lamplight. They had some fast boys with the dice down there; you had to have good eyes.''

You had to have more than that. Most gamblers carried a pistol, as Muddy did off and on for years, and most had good-luck charms made by local hoodoo doctors. Sometimes a really successful gambler would disappear for a few days or weeks and reappear with a charm he claimed to have purchased in the South's most powerful hoodoo center, New Orleans. ''We all believed in mojo hands, which is a luck charm. If you were gambling, the mojo would take care of that, you'd win, and the woman you want, you could work that on her and win. I won some money one night, so I went off and bought me a three-dollar mojo.

''The mojo doctor's hair was real white, he was a long, tall guy. He looked weird, and he had weird little tingalings hanging in his office. He got a little piece of paper, had writing on it, and he rolled it up right, sealed it in an envelope, put some perfume on the envelope. And you know what? It was five years before I won another quarter.'' Bo, who was frying some shrimp, exploded with laughter. ''Then I got mad, I got broke once in a crap game and decided I'm gonna open it and see what's in it, and it was just some little writing: 'You win, you win, you win, I win, you win, I win.' I had it read to me. It's just a con game on people's heads, you know, getting the fools. If such a thing as a mojo had've been good, you'd have had to go down to Louisiana to find one. They could have had a few things down in Louisiana doing something. But up in the Delta, nothing, I don't think.''

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