OK, where were we?
I remember, we were talking about Van Morrison’s childhood influences. There were three more major ones, as I calculate it.
One was Ray Charles. I’m not going to open up a whole Brother Ray thread here, because it could easily consume the next few years. Chances are you are already pretty familiar with some of Ray’s work, and also that there is plenty more you don’t know about. But I’ll leave that to your own discretion.
The second was Lonnie Donegan, the man who invented skiffle. By adapting American blues and folk music into a form that was easy for young Brits to digest and to play, Donegan was an important building block for the Van Morrisons, Beatles, and Rolling Stones of the world. There was a little bit of a Pat Boone flavor to his borderline cultural appropriation, but I think he was sincere in his love of the music. An in-depth of this exploration of this topic may have to wait for another lifetime; in the meantime, here’s Donegan with his band performing a song called “Have a Drink on Me”:
And the third was Muddy Waters. I could happily do a couple of months on Muddy, but I probably shouldn’t. Instead I’m going to throw something together real quick before the Warriors game starts,1 and we’ll move on to new topics next time.
McKinley Morganfield’s exact time and place of birth are unknown; the best we can say is that he was born somewhere in the Western part of Mississipppi circa 1913–1915. Take it away, Wikipedia:
His grandmother, Della Grant, raised him after his mother died shortly after his birth. Grant gave him the nickname “Muddy” at an early age because he loved to play in the muddy water of nearby Deer Creek. “Waters” was added years later, as he began to play harmonica and perform locally in his early teens….
He had his first introduction to music in church: “I used to belong to church. I was a good Baptist, singing in the church. So I got all of my good moaning and trembling going on for me right out of church,” he recalled. By the time he was 17, he had purchased his first guitar. “I sold the last horse that we had. Made about fifteen dollars for him, gave my grandmother seven dollars and fifty cents, I kept seven-fifty and paid about two-fifty for that guitar. It was a Stella. The people ordered them from Sears-Roebuck in Chicago.” He started playing his songs in joints near his hometown….
In the early 1930s, Muddy Waters accompanied Big Joe Williams on tours of the Delta, playing harmonica. Williams recounted to Blewett Thomas that he eventually dropped Muddy “because he was takin’ away my women [fans].”
In August 1941, Alan Lomax went to Stovall, Mississippi, on behalf of the Library of Congress to record various country blues musicians. “He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house,” Muddy told Rolling Stone magazine, “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.”
After that, he went to Chicago to make it big, and he did. Unlike Josh White, who traveled a very similar path from the South to the big cities of the North, he favored a loud, hard full-band sound. In the record store you’d find Muddy in the blues section, and musicologically speaking I’m sure that’s correct, in terms of rhythms and chord progressions and such. But make no mistake about it, Muddy was a rock star before that was a thing.
Here’s a clip of Muddy when he was a little younger:
And here he is with the Stones in 1981. This is the best of several versions of this clip circulating. It’s still 4/20 somewhere, right?
After that you might want to spend the next hour or 12 listening to Muddy, and I can’t blame you. For me it’s tipoff time.