It was the last week in August, 1941.
Scholars and song collectors Alan Lomax, from the Library of Congress, and John Work, from Fisk University in Nashville, TN, were travelling through Mississippi on a project to trace the origins of the Blues in the Delta region. They carried a “portable” electric recording machine that ran off of their automobile’s battery and recorded by cutting grooves directly into aluminum discs.
Their method of operation was to drive the back roads, stopping at general stores and filling stations, and ask the locals about who were the good musicians in the area. When the pair managed to get a name, they would follow up by trying to locate the person and hear what he/she had to offer.
Around the Carksdale area, they were told about a musician named McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Water, who played a lot like the recently-deceased Blues artist Robert Johnson. This was an especially interesting tip for Lomax and Work because they were also, on this trip, trying to gather as much information as they could about the mysterious Johnson.
Morganield was a 26-year-old plantation tractor driver, juke house operator, performing singer/guitarist and maker of the best moonshine whiskey in the area. He and his wife lived in a cabin about four miles outside of Clarksdale on the Stovall Plantation. What most people didn’t know was that ever since he was a teenager and had heard commercial recordings by Leroy Carr and Charlie Patton on a neighbor’s phonograph, Muddy had wanted to make a record himself.
So, when Lomax and Work drove up the dusty dirt road to his sharecropper shack and told him they were interested in recording him to be preserved in the Library of Congress, Muddy was initially not very interested. He wanted to make records that would be sold in stores and played on the local juke box. But after listening to the two men and seeing the equipment, he became interested and decided to give it a try.
Muddy performed three songs that day: “Country Blues,” “I Be’s Satisfied” and “Burr Clover Farm Blues.” Also recorded were three interviews with Lomax asking Muddy about the origins of the songs and his bottleneck playing style. (All six tracks are available on the CD: Muddy Waters – The Complete Plantation Recordings issued by MCA in 1993.)
The recordings made that day, besides being incredible pieces of music, are most important because of what they meant to the artist who played on them. When Lomax played the freshly-cut discs back for him to hear, Muddy was amazed. He always felt he was good, but what he heard proved to him that he was as good as anybody else making records.
In Mary Katherine Aldin’s liner notes to the MCA CD, she recounts what Muddy told researcher Paul Oliver years after the recording date: “I really HEARD myself fot the first time. I’d never heard my voice. I used to sing; used to sing just how I felt, ’cause that’s the way we always sing in Mississippi. But when Mr. Lomax played me the record I thought, man, this boy can sing the Blues.”
The researchers paid Muddy $10.00 per song and went on their way. Life returned to normal for the musician, but if he was troubled and dissatisfied before, the revelations of that day only intensified those feelings in the months ahead.
As promised, Lomax eventually sent Muddy two copies of a 78-rpm record with “Country Blues” on one side and “I Be’s Troubled” on the other. In July and August of 1942, Alan Lomax came back to Clarksdale and recorded Muddy again. In January of 1943, two of the first three songs recorded in August, 1941, were released commercially by the Library of Congress as part of a six-album set.
In May of 1943, McKinley Morganfield/Muddy Waters boarded the 4:00 pm, Friday afternoon train from Clarksdale, Mississippi to Chicago, Illinois.
The sources of information for this post were: Deep Blues (1981) by Robert Palmer and Delta Blues (2008) by Ted Gioia.
‘Knew the name…never knew this history…Thanks
What a colorful life Muddy had. I am glad that at least some of the artists recorded by Lomax became commercial successes, but I believe that Muddy was probably the most successful, and influential of all the blues artists he came across. (Correct me if I’m wrong…! )
Muddy has always been one of my favorites, and I only wish I’d had the chance to see him live. I remember that he celebrated his 60th birthday party in Boston, at Paul’s Mall, broadcast on ‘BCN, I believe. If I recall, Jeff Beck, Peter Wolf were there, among others. What a great show it must have been….!
If you’ve seen “The Last Waltz” (of course you have….!) Muddy plays “Mannish Boy” with The Band. Incredible….