Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in rural northwestern Mississippi in 1915, not far from Clarksdale, home of the legendary Crossroads. Muddy learned to play harmonica as a child and guitar as a teenager. He was a fan of, and was influenced by, two other Clarksdale area bluesmen, Son House and Robert Johnson, which is equivalent to a young Henry Aaron admiring Jackie Robinson and Cool Papa Bell. I won’t bore you with the details of Muddy’s colorful and legendary career. If you are not aware of his importance to the history of music, you haven’t been paying attention.
There is a wealth of audio as well as video recordings of Muddy Waters on the internet, and nearly all of them are worthy of attention. Muddy usually recorded and performed with backing musicians, some of them being well known contemporaries of Muddy, such as Little Walter, Otis Spann, and Willie Dixon. But my favorite Muddy Waters recordings are those he made singing and playing guitar by himself. It is in those early solo recordings that you hear the most basic elements of the Delta Blues sound, which originated in Mississippi, was carried to Chicago by Muddy and others, and eventually reached all over the globe, to the eternal benefit of all sentient beings.
Tonight’s featured song was recorded in February 1950 at the famed Chess Studios in Chicago. Ladies and gentlemen, this recording is one man, one guitar, and one take. They turned on the machine, McKinley Morganfield played this song, they turned off the machine, and BAM— one of the most important recordings ever made. There is no video with it, but you don’t need it. Just listen to its simple brilliance: the tone of the voice, the range of the voice, the phrasing of the words, the picking of the guitar strings, and the all-important bending of the guitar strings. This song is so rich that even the “Oh wells” and the “Oh Lawds” and the “Sho nuffs” are fraught with emotional associations that the listener may not even be able to identify at the conscious level. How does it feel to be a human being? It feels like this song sounds.