Muddy Waters' evolution: A deep dive into his musical skills

Is Muddy Waters the most influential blues muscian? If not, he's got top be pretty close!
Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters / Luciano Viti/GettyImages

Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1913 (or 1915, the exact year is disputed), and passing away on April 30, 1983, was a highly influential American blues musician, singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He is often referred to as the "Father of Chicago Blues," though he at times suggested that didn't bring him the success he deserved.
“No I ain’t no millionaire, but I had a lot of managers that became millionaires,” Muddy Waters once stated. Nonetheless, he played a crucial role in the development and popularization of electric blues, and the additional impact that entailed.

Early life and influences of Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters grew up in the Mississippi Delta, a region renowned for its rich blues heritage. He was exposed to music at an early age through the songs of field workers and local musicians. Waters was heavily influenced by the traditional Delta blues sound and the musicians he encountered, such as Son House and Robert Johnson, though his own musical skills and, specifically, the evolution of his guitar playing involved distinctive slide guitar playing. He used a bottleneck slide on his finger to create a smooth and soulful sound enhanced by amplification.

Initially, he played acoustic Delta blues, but after moving to Chicago, he embraced the amplified electric guitar, contributing significantly to the development of Chicago blues, and modern blues in general. What was the distinction? It's not necessarily just an amplifier, but perhaps a certain quality or feel. Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records stated that, "Chicago blues is the music of the industrial city, and has an industrial sense about it."
Also, much like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters himself evolved from one primary instrument to another; he apparently started out playing harmonica, but felt more of an affinity with guitar.

Vocal style, songwriting, and lyrics

Muddy Waters had a powerful and emotive vocal style, so he wasn't just a guitar hero. In fact, in plenty of live performances, he modestly let other musicians play flashy parts as he sang. People recognize his voice on the song “Hoochie Coochie Man” about as easily as they recognize, say, Johnny Cash's. Muddy's fairly deep, slightly gravelly voice was perfectly suited for the blues, conveying the pain, joy, and experiences of African Americans. His vocal delivery and personality added an extra layer of emotion and authenticity to his performances.

Muddy Waters was an exceptional songwriter, often drawing on his life experiences and the struggles of African Americans. In fact, Muddy Waters' move from Mississippi to Chicago seems to embody the very concept of the “Southern Diaspora”). As an example, the song "Mannish Boy" may sound like he's merely bragging about sexual prowess, but when Muddy spells out he's a man, it was actually a political statement. He explained: “Growing up in the South, African-Americans [would] never be referred to as a man – but as ‘boy’. In this context, the song [is] an assertion of black manhood...”
(To be fair, the song does borrow a lot from the Bo Diddley song "I'm a Man," but the point remains.)

The lyrics of Muddy Waters' songs often depict the hardships of life, love, and societal issues, contributing to the relatability and enduring appeal of his music, and without the feel of a “Hollywood Ending.” For example, his original song "Champagne & Reefer" was an obvious call for legalized pot, which was a little more controversial back then. Other great songs (picked here basically at random) include "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You."

Innovation and adaptation, collaborations and influence

Muddy Waters was pivotal in transforming traditional Delta blues into a more electrified, urban sound. He played a significant role in popularizing the use of amplified instruments in blues, giving birth to what is now known as Chicago blues. This innovation helped bridge the gap between rural, acoustic blues and urban, electrified blues. Waters collaborated with numerous musicians and played a crucial role in mentoring and nurturing talent within the blues community.

His influence extended beyond the blues genre, impacting rock and roll artists such as The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin, among many others.
To give an idea Muddy Waters' contributions to blues and popular music are immense.
As the website Produce Like a Pro notes: "In an illustration of Waters’ enormous influence, The Rolling Stones named themselves after a song by him, as did Rolling Stone magazine, and Bob Dylan referenced him with his classic song 'Like A Rolling Stone.'”
He brought the blues from the rural South to the urban North, forever altering the trajectory of the genre. His influence on subsequent generations of musicians is immeasurable, and his music remains an essential part of the blues (and yes, rock) canon.

Stray observations

  • In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service featured Muddy Water on a 29-cent commemorative stamp
  • Rolling Stone magazine related a great, relatable story about Muddy's initial feelings of achievement:
    In August 1941, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax went to Stovall, Mississippi, on behalf of the Library of Congress to record Muddy and other country blues musicians. According to Muddy's account in the Rolling Stone interview: "He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house...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'." [Palmer, Robert (October 5, 1978). Muddy Waters: The Delta Son Never Sets. Rolling Stone. p. 55.]
  • According to various accounts, Muddy's grandmother gave him the nickname "Muddy" at an early age because he loved to play in the muddy water.
  • Howlin' Wolf was his label mate and, to some degree, competitive rival.

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