Born in 1915 in rural Mississippi, McKinley Morganfield had an early childhood that differed little from those of most African-Americans growing up in the thick of the agricultural South. Raised by his maternal grandmother, McKinley (nicknamed “Muddy” for his predilection for playing in rain puddles) grew up working on a plantation outside of Clarksdale. With little formal education, Morganfield traded schoolbooks for a harmonica and, at the age of 17, his first guitar.
“Discovered” by Alan Lomax in 1942, the son of noted American folklorist John Lomax, Muddy Waters joined the pantheon of backwaters curiosities recorded and cataloged for the Library of Congress’ ambitious Archive of American Folk Song project that included Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter. Not content with being relegated to an obscure reference in a dusty library tome, while at the same time looking for the same sort of economic opportunity that could only be afforded to young blacks in the North, Waters packed up his Mississippi Delta blues and took them to Chicago a few years later.
Bedding down in the Chicago’s South Side, Waters traded his acoustic guitar for an electric and an amplifier. Slowly building his connections with other local musicians and making a name for himself with regular appearances at the Maxwell Street jam sessions, Waters was eventually signed to Phil and Leonard Chess’ upstart blues record label. And the rest, as they say, is the stuff of legends.
The Anthology: 1947-1972 represents a comprehensive retrospective of Waters’ prolific body of work on the Chess label. Starting with the simple, raw, and countrified authenticity of tracks like “Gypsy Woman” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied” from 1947 and 1948 to the full out electrified sound of 1969’s “All Aboard”, which includes a young Paul Butterfield on harmonica, the anthology squarely focuses on Waters’ mid- to late-1950s output.
The listings of Waters’ sidemen on these recordings reads like a who’s who of Chicago blues luminaries, including blues harpists Little Walter, Junior Wells and James Cotton, guitarists Jimmy Rogers and Buddy Guy, bassist Willie Dixon, pianist Otis Spann and drummer Francis Clay. Meanwhile, the track listings represent Waters’ best and most well-known work; “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Honey Bee”, and “Rock Me” are presented in all their genuine glory straight from the original master recordings.
Meanwhile, the tremendous influence of Muddy Waters on a whole generation of rock and roll artists is also plainly visible on this collection as well. Tracks like “Trouble No More”, “Good Morning Little School Girl”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, and “I Just Want to Make Love to You” have all been covered by the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Them (with Van Morrison) and Foghat respectively. Also included is “Rollin’ Stone”, the driving source of inspiration and namesake for a group of young British art students who would later stand alongside the Beatles as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
While the machine-gun guitar intros, loping shuffle beats and pained blues shout of Waters has been imitated to the point of exhaustion, his music and style is unmistakable. Muddy Waters was an artist and an innovator. His influence on the development of the Chicago blues sound and his significance for succeeding generations of blues and rock musicians have been immeasurable.