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Muddy Waters: The Delta Son Never Sets

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Muddy expanded from occasional Saturday night dances to a regular operation. By the early Forties he was running his own juke house, with a policy wheel for serious gambling, one of the new jukeboxes, his moonshine whiskey and music. Sometimes he played there alone, blowing a kazoo mounted in a neck rack and bearing down heavily on his guitar to keep people dancing. ''They'd be doing the snake hips, working their butts, you know, and all those old dances, and hollering, 'Ooh shit, play it,' and I'm just blowing on my little jazz horn and hitting on my guitar. You know, the country sounds different than in the city, the sound out there be empty. You could hear that guitar before you got to the house, and you could hear the peoples hollering.''

This was what was going on in the summer of 1941, when the pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax showed up at Stovall's plantation with his bulky portable recording rig. He was looking for folk music for the Library of Congress and he inquired after Robert Johnson, but Robert had been murdered a few years before and everyone recommended Muddy. ''He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house,'' Muddy remembered, ''and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody's records. Man, you don't know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said. 'I can do it, I can do it.'''

Lomax returned to Stovall in July 1942 and recorded Muddy again, as a soloist and with the blues fiddler Son Sims and his string band. These and the 1941 recordings are available on the album Down on Storvall's Plantation, on the Testament label, and they are phenomenal. Muddy played his steel-bodied guitar with razor-sharp accuracy, setting up hypnotic repeating patterns in the bass and filling in sharp slide figures in the treble, singing with gripping immediacy. He would rework a number of the songs he recorded for Lomax – most of which were based more or less directly on traditional pieces in the first place – into the staples of his repertoire after he got to Chicago. And once Muddy recorded for Lomax he was Chicago-bound, whether he knew it or not.

He had already been infected by a certain restlessness. ''I left my first little wife, who's dead now, God bless her, for another woman,'' he recalled, looking a little wistful for the first and only time in the conversation. ''I don't know what the hell was wrong with me; I was kind of a wild cat, man. I'd stay with her awhile and then come back and go away, and then I took this other woman from the little town next to my little town and we went and caught a train for St. Louis. But I wasn't used to the big city and didn't like it, so we went back, and I told my wife, 'Hey, I done get married, you can move out.' What a mess will country peoples do! Later I brought this woman to Chicago with me and we couldn't get along no kind of way, I had to get rid of her. Well, I was crazy, that's all.''

Muddy was bound to tangle with white authority sooner or later, and in May 1943 he had words with the overseer who ran the plantation while Mr. Stovall was away in the army. ''I asked him would he raise me to twenty-five cents an hour for driving the tractor, which is what the other people were getting, and he had a fit. When he got through stomping around, my mind just said, 'Go to Chicago.' I went to my grandmother and she said, 'Well, if you think you're going to have some problem' – you know how it was down there – 'you better go.' That was on Monday. I worked till that Thursday at five o'clock, and on Friday I came in sick and went on to Clarksdale to catch that four-o'clock train.''

What Muddy saw when he stepped off the train, still a little woozy from the all-day, all-night journey, was completely alien to the world he had known. ''I wish you could've seen me. I got off the train and it looked like this was the fastest place in the world: cabs dropping fares, horns blowing, the peoples walking so fast.''

Muddy slept on a couch in the living room of his sister's and her husbands apartment his first week in Chicago. But it was wartime. Industry was booming and manpower was scarce. Muddy got a draft call almost as soon as he arrived in the city – he'd been protected on the plantation because his job was considered vital to agriculture – but once the army learned he had quit school after the second or third grade and couldn't really read or write, they turned him down, to his great delight. He worked several factory and truck-driving jobs, took a four-room apartment, and eventually landed a job delivering Venetian blinds. He made his run in the morning, slept in the afternoon, and played at rent parties and in small taverns at night.

His music began to change. He was concentrating more on his singing and less on his guitar, and working with some other musicians from the Delta, among them pianist Eddie Boyd and guitarists Blue Smitty and Baby Face Leroy. In 1945 his grandmother died, and it was in the spring of 1946, after he returned from burying her, that he met Jimmy Rogers, then mostly a harmonica player. They formed a little group with Rogers on harp and Muddy and Smitty on guitars, and began playing around at house parties and small taverns.

''Muddy was a little older,'' Jimmy says, ''and he was the most like ol' Robert Johnson's style with the slide guitar. I understood the slide style quite well – I learned guitar in the Delta – so I could back him up good. Pretty soon Smitty and I just put Muddy as the leader, because he would do most of the rough blues singing.''

The black neighborhoods were lawless and overcrowded. New arrivals, most of them from Mississippi and neighboring states, were pushing in every day and the whites were fighting to keep them contained on the rapidly deteriorating South and West Sides. The blues scene was transitional. Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and some other Southern bluesmen who had been popular before the war were still the kingpins, largely because of their recording connections. But Muddy and his friends were part of a new wave of musicians who played a harder, more down-home brand of blues, the kind that was being heard in Southern juke joints. In order to cut through crowd noise and compete with the volume of the jukeboxes, these younger bluesmen bought amplifiers, which became mandatory once they began to contend with the decibel level in rowdy city taverns. As the migrants continued to pour in, Muddy's electrified country blues became more and more popular.

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