by Len Lear
When I saw on Woodmere Art Museum’s website a while back that their “Friday Night Jazz” would feature a tribute to Blues pioneers Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, powerful feelings began bubbling up like rainwater.
When you grow up as a white boy in a big northern city, the Blues are, at most, a lilting, strangely affecting, unknown tongue that whispers to the heart. Like listening to a musical foreign language, you sometimes feel its mysterious beauty but do not understand all of the words.
I know, of course, that the Blues are all about bad crops, racism, poverty, no work, too much rain, broken romances, et al. But it wasn’t until I spent time in the Deep South while in the Air Force in the 1960s that I began to hear some of the nuances in the Blues’ powerful language.
There was something about the Mississippi Delta that spoke to me the first time I passed down the macadam from the rolling cliffside of Yazoo City, just a few months before three civil rights workers were tortured and murdered by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the “crime” of trying to register blacks to vote. It’s no wonder they sing the Blues in the Mississippi Delta.
The land was oozing away to the horizon like a giant footprint on the earth. It was July, and the sun spent its time glowering like a giant round slab of butter. The fields were too wet to plow, and the cotton hung from its stalks like sooty teardrops. Blues weather.
As we weaved through the Delta’s moonscape, austere and primeval, I heard the plunk of a flat one-string guitar stretched taut on the weathered boards of a sharecropper’s cabin wall. The plunk, discordant and primitive, came to me across the dreary fields, and a voice, singing of hard times and hard women, wailed in the distance.
At that point I felt the spiritual hum of the blues like the residue of an ancient ceremony involving blood and tears. The Delta opened my heart to the Blues, but it was Muddy Waters who became my tutor.
Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield; he was born in 1913 on a plantation near Rolling Fork, Mississippi, a lazy Delta town that had fewer inhabitants than the Hill House on Evergreen Avenue. As a child who liked to play in the muddy bottoms of irrigation ditches, he was given the nickname Muddy Waters, and he later carried that name to the north along with an unquenchable thirst for freedom.
For 37 years, Muddy wandered the earth, singing the electrifying Blues that were born in the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta. The pain that came through his umbilical cord never healed. In 1981 Muddy Waters returned home for the first time in almost four decades and performed on a stage in a cotton field in, of all places, a town called Freedom City, Mississippi. The stage, suspended in the night like a sparkling diamond on black velvet, came alive with the words and music that had been nurtured there.
I was not there in person that night, but when I saw a video of the concert, the Blues took wing for me. In Muddy’s luminous face I saw a time-honed counterpoint to the words of freedom he sang, and I realized he was wailing for me and all of America as well as for himself.
It took quite an effort, but a few weeks later I was able to do a telephone interview with Muddy for the Philadelphia Journal. He said he was grateful to British groups, particularly the Rolling Stones, for reviving interest in the Delta Blues, but he was definitely upset that so many authentic Blues musicians over the years had died unknown and impoverished while so much mediocre music was filling up the radio playlists.
Almost two years later – on April 30, 1983, to be exact – Muddy died in his sleep of heart failure at age 70, although I think his heart was broken for many years before his death because of the treatment of Blues musicians in the U.S.
A few months later, we stood at a club downtown whose name I do not recall as James Cotton, a harmonica player who played with Muddy Waters for 12 years, sauntered his way through a rendition of “Mannish Boy.” There were yelps from the crowd and more than a few tears, some in Cotton’s eyes. And then Cotton, born in Tunica, Mississippi, in 1935, talked about how Muddy Waters had been like a father to him.
And as I watched Muddy perform “Mannish Boy” on my computer screen yesterday, I thought that Muddy Waters was like a spiritual father to everyone who loves the Blues.
You can reach Len Lear at email@example.com