When Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he permanently alienated a portion of his passionate fan base. When Muddy Waters went electric roughly 20 years earlier, he didn’t have a fan base to be concerned about, and those who did go to his shows probably had no quarrel with his motivation for plugging in, which was simply to play loud enough to be heard inside a raucous nightclub. Little could those lucky Chicagoans have known that they were hearing the birth of a style of blues that would become a fundamental part of their city’s cultural identity. Out of all the bluesmen plying their trade in the clubs of the Windy City in the late 40s and early 50s, none did more than Muddy Waters to create the Chicago Blues—the hard-driving, amplified, distinctly urban sound with roots in the rural Mississippi Delta, where Waters was born on this day in 1913.
Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He played and sang at parties and fish fries from the age of 17, spending his days picking cotton on the Stovall Plantation for 50 cents a day. In 1941, folklorist Alan Lomax, on his famous trip through the Delta on behalf of the Library of Congress, discovered Waters and made the first recordings of his slide-guitar blues, released many years later as the “Plantation Recordings.” By 1944, Waters had joined the Great Migration that took African Americans by the hundreds of thousands north to cities like Chicago. It was there that his country blues evolved into the aggressive Chicago Blues exemplified on famous songs like “Rollin’ Stone,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Mannish Boy” and “Got My Mojo Working.”
The first of those songs would later provide songwriting inspiration to Bob Dylan and the idea for a name to a famous British rock group. The Rolling Stones were just one of hundreds of blues-based groups that formed in England in the early 1960s, inspired in part by Muddy Waters’ records and by his tour of Britain in 1958. Waters would be regarded as a blues giant on the strength of his 1947-1958 Chess Records recordings alone, but it was the influence of those records on a young generation of British musicians that formed the basis for his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born on this day in 1913, Muddy Waters died near his adopted hometown of Chicago on April 30, 1983.