It Changed Your Life

Today’s audio update: Tim Cahill returns to his blues roots.

Muddy Waters 

It was Muddy Waters who took the Delta blues north to Chicago, electrified the sound, and changed the course of popular music as we know it. That’s pretty much the judgment of history, and it is mine as well. I remember hearing Muddy Waters play, but in the mid-’60s, during a blues revival. I was a college student and unaware of the fact that the blues were being revived or that they needed to be. The music and the lyrics moved me. Still do.

Muddy Waters grew up on the Stovall Plantation, not far out of Clarksdale, Miss. The house where he lived is gone now, rebuilt in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. The idea was to preserve the structure, a humble rough-cut cedar building of the type that housed sharecroppers. There was only a depression in the grass where Muddy’s childhood home had been. A plaque nearby identified the site and included a quote from Eric Clapton: “[Muddy Waters’] music changed my life, and whether you know it or not, and like it or not, it probably changed yours, too.”

These words ring true. I could see it all over the blues highway, which had taken us from New Orleans north to the Mississippi Delta, where the music we call the blues was born. The blues wandered off down south, where it influenced the sound of the jazz that was springing up in different forms in New Orleans. But most of the blues traveled with itinerant blues men, and it moved north. Memphis, the capital of the mid-South, only a few hundred miles north of the Delta, was a natural destination for a musically talented and ambitious man.

But the blues weren’t done traveling. In Memphis, Sam Phillips of Sun Records was recording men like Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett), who, Phillips said, had the “best voice of any man I ever recorded.” Phillips expressed a desire to record Howlin’ Wolf for the rest of his life.

Burnett had quit farming and moved from the Delta to Memphis when he was 39. A few years later, he moved to Chicago. It was happening more and more to Phillips. He couldn’t keep the blues players he loved in town. Chicago was a destination for Delta blacks, many of whom were out of work due to new mechanized cotton sowing and picking machines. The Second City was seen as a sort of utopia. There were jobs for the taking, the white power structure pretty much left a man alone, and there was no lingering heritage of slavery. Chicago was the city of broad shoulders, and most of those broad shoulders were black.

This 1996 Alison Saar statue salutes the arrival of Southern blacks in Chicago

African-Americans in the Delta had seen Chicago through rose-colored glasses for many decades. In the mid-1930s, one of Robert Johnson’s signature songs was “Sweet Home Chicago.” Chicago hired men to work in steel mills and foundries and in the stockyards and meat-packing houses. The black-owned and -operated newspaper the Chicago Defender encouraged migration to Chicago. The paper was distributed in Delta cities by railroad porters, and it told people that there were more jobs than men in the big city up north. It was true. There is a statue of a weary black traveler with a broken suitcase set near the old station, at Martin Luther King and 26th Street, on the South Side of Chicago. There is no plaque, and I assume the monument is meant to immortalize the “Great Migration North.” Still, staring at the statue for a few moments one is assaulted by a single throbbing question: Why does the black traveler have scales, like a mermaid?

When Muddy Waters took the Illinois Central to Chicago in 1943, he asked a few questions at Union Station, found a relative’s apartment without any trouble, and got a job at a container factory that day, a Saturday. Muddy, who’d quit a 22.5-cent-per-hour job driving a tractor at the Stovall Plantation in the Delta, had been told by Chicago friends that he’d never make it with his guitar in the big city. Muddy, before his death in 1983, told blues writer Robert Palmer that he was told, “They don’t listen to that kind of old blues you’re doing now, don’t nobody listen to that, not in Chicago.”

But Muddy pressed on, playing in little clubs for $5 a night. He still worked his day job and ran perilously short on sleep. By the next year, 1944, he had enough money to buy his first electric guitar. The idea was to cut through the sound of the noisy South Side clubs, where most blacks had settled. But the amplification of the bottleneck slide Muddy played, of the harp (harmonica) blown by his longtime collaborator Little Walter Jacobs, they sounded like voices. And the voices rocked. Did half the rock artists to follow cop licks from Muddy Waters and his band? They surely did. Muddy himself said, “The blues had a baby, and they called it rock ’n’ roll.”

In 1952, Muddy cut the song “Rollin’ Stone.”It was a nationwide success, and the song echoes down through rock ’n’ roll history. Bob Dylan cut a tribute by the same name, an English band decided to call themselves the Rolling Stones, and the magazine that first embraced music as a serious cultural phenomenon was itself called Rolling Stone.

And this is where I came in, a white college student driving down from the University of Wisconsin to hear Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf … the greats. And they changed my life. The blues wrapped me in an aural web, and I was never the same. Indeed, I ended up working for that music magazine, Rolling Stone, which was named after a Muddy Waters song. In fact, I still work there and have, on and off, for over 30 years. Whether he knew it or not—and he surely did not—Muddy Waters started changing my life in 1963, and I have a feeling he still isn’t done with me.