Blues: A Homegrown Story XI

Under the aegis of the 92Y

“What we want to do today is to focus on the two dominating figures in Chicago blues at the end of the 1940s through the 1950s, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf,” host Louis Rosen begins. “By the end of the 1950s, my perception is that the blues had run its full cycle. The genre evolved from solo acoustic music to duets and electric bands, then back to acoustic for so-called authenticity.” Its offshoot became what we call Soul. Within 10-12 years, Soul would transform into Funk.

Traditional blues was made by Blacks for Blacks, but by the time it circled back to acoustic, the audience was White. Muddy Waters went from playing at The Newport Jazz Festival (suits and ties; electric) to The Newport Folk Festival (casual; acoustic). “The move was put into hyper drive by British Rock and Rollers. The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and John Mayall repopularized the genre.

To quote my last article: “The Rolling Stones were middle class kids. They heard something bona-fide in the music. Songs weren’t white- washed fantasy ideas of what life and romance was. Also, in a very depressed England filled with post war rubble, they identified with the African American alienation and struggle. The BBC wouldn’t play this music for awhile. If you want to get young people interested in something, ban it. Here we made the assumption the music was for lower class people, in England, it was exotic.” (Louis Rosen)

We preface the giants with a couple of songs by T- Bone Walker (Aaron Thibeux Walker 1910-1975). Born in Texas of African American and Cherokee descent, the singer/songwriter played guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo and violin. He left school at ten, became the protégé of family friend Blind Lemon Jefferson, and was on the blues circuit by 15. Walker was at the forefront of jump (up-tempo) and electric blues, first plugging in his guitar in 1939. “He and Charlie Christian (a pioneer in jazz), changed the concept of guitar with a sound that makes it seem as if the instrument is talking,” Rosen remarks. “A sharp attack that’s one with the voice.”

We listen to slow, soulful “Stormy Monday” and “Mean Old World”: “Yes, this is a mean old world/Try to live in it by yourself.” Like Waters and Wolf, Walker has a terrific voice. The scene is set.

Let’s get back to Muddy Waters. Again, from last week’s chronicle, “McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters (1913-1983) grew up on the Stovall Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi playing guitar and harmonica. He was raised by his grandmother, Della Grant, who gave him the nickname Muddy, because he loved to play in the muddy water of neighboring Deer Creek. `I used to belong to church…a good Baptist…I got all of my good moaning and trembling going on for me right out of church.’” (Muddy Waters)

“He’s recording electric with his band only a couple of years after starting to play,” Rosen reminds us. The first song of Waters’ to chart was 1951’s “Louisiana Blues.” Its format is two-line repetition, then resolution. (By then, the top ten Race Chart, was now called Rhythm & Blues.)  A slow, hip-swinging “Long Distance Call” was the next to find success: “Hear my phone ringing/Sound like a long distance call/When I picked up my receiver/The party said another mule kicking in your stall.” Waters’ voice is deep and gritty.

Paramount to the sound is virtuoso harmonica playing by Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs 1930-1968) who elevated the instrument, setting standards. Walter was raised in Louisiana, quit school at 12 and arrived in Chicago in 1946 having been a professional for years. In order to be heard over guitars, he cupped a small microphone in his hands along with his harmonica and plugged the microphone into a public address system or guitar amplifier. “It changed everyone’s sense of the defining color a harmonica brought to a band. Walter was a hothead and never rose to Muddy’s stature. In fact, he died in a back street brawl.”

At this point, songwriter Willie Dixon comes into both Waters and Wolf’s lives. “Probably the most important writer to emerge out of the period, Dixon was also a guitarist, producer and A & R man for Chess Records.” The first song that became a huge hit for Muddy was 1954’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” It’s a full blown electric number with lots of exuberant, layered sound. Waters and Jimmy Rodgers are on guitar, Otis Spann-piano, Willie Dixon-bass, Little Walter-harmonica, Fred Below-drums (Below played on a lot of Chuck Berry’s hits.) The group would be in a studio every three months.

Next we listen to Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” which sounds like “Ah jus wanta make luuuuv ta you.” Superb. Then, his “I’m Ready”: “I’m drinkin’ TNT, I’m smokin’ dynamite/I hope some screwball start a fight…” the kind of music one is hard-pressed choosing “cool” or “hot” to describe.

“Muddy helped nurture younger players. When blues guitarist/singer Buddy Guy arrived in Chicago in 1957 broke and hungry, he persuaded a club owner to give him a chance. Muddy was advised immediately and went to hear the young man, taking along a salami sandwich, figuring Guy would be hungry.” The senior musician offered a leg up, getting him recording sessions for Chess Records.

We watch a video of Muddy Waters’ band performing “Got My Mojo Working” (Preston Foster). Everyone wears a suit and tie. Waters sits, hands on knees, moving nothing but his head despite a spirited vocal. Little Walter, on the other hand, rocks back and forth and side to side, one knee marks time, a leg sometimes kicks. He wriggles on the chair as if dying to get up  and dance. “The 50s were Muddy’s decade. If you made it into his band, you were launched into celebrity.”

Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett 1910-1976) was raised in Mississippi of African American and Choctaw roots. He was 6’3” and weighed 300 pounds. The artist was nicknamed “Big Foot Chester,” “Bull Cow,” then “Howlin’ Wolf,” the latter when warned wolves would get him for killing his grandmother’s chicks by squeezing them too tightly. He lurched from caregiver to caregiver often mistreated after a broken home, eventually settling with his father’s kind family. In 1930, the young man met guitarist Charlie Patton who became mentor and teacher. Acquiring showmanship as well as guitar skills, as Howlin’ Wolf he’d perform tricks he learned from Patton for the rest of his life.

The musician was also a fan of Jimmie Rodgers whose yodel he tried unsuccessfully to imitate, turning instead to a howl. In 1951, freelance musician/talent scout Ike Turner (who would become Tina’s abusive husband), took Wolf to Memphis’ Recording Services run by Sam Phillips . (Phillips  would famously go on to start Sun Studio recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.)  Wolf became a local celebrity and licensed his music to Chess Records. The first song released was “Moanin’ At Midnight.”  His is another fine, engaging voice with a clean, longlined “weeeeel.”

By the time he moves to Chicago in 1953, Wolf is a Chess Records artist. Muddy helps him land his first bookings despite the implicit future challenge he expects. Almost immediately the two were in competition for Willie Dixon’s songs.” Wolf’s own “Smokestack Lightening” was inspired by watching night trains. He played guitar and harmonica on the recording. “Ooh, whoo-hoo, whoo-hoo, whooo” comes the evocative, wordless sound.

 “A lot of discussion could be had about young White men singing the blues,” Rosen comments. “Muddy said that you had to have lived the African American experience to really understand. People who were really devoted could capture it in their playing, but not their singing.” Another example of this is the iconic “Spoonful.” We listen to the songwriter’s rendition  then, an excerpt from 1968’s version by Cream (Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker). In fact, the vocal doesn’t hold up to musicianship.

One critic called Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” a party song in urban style. Its writer said the term meant a good time “especially if a guy came in from the south.” “All night lawng, all night lawng, all night lawng…” Muddy sings.  “Willie Dixon was the master of the one chord groove song,” remarks Rosen.  A 1960ish video of Muddy performing “Smokestack Lightening” shows the big man standing in suit and tie at an upright microphone, raw, expressive and dancing in place but serious. Beside him Willie Dixon plays bass.

“So Howlin’ Wolf in his own way certainly became Muddy Waters equal, though Muddy’s band was more sophisticated. As you move through the 1950s, into the 1960s, there’s Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Elmore James, BB King…With Elvis Presley and Little Richard, rock and roll emerges naturally by 1955, 56; Chuck Berry becomes the darling of Chess Records. His was what the public perceived as an authentic, less manufactured sound, the music of people who sought something outside White pop.”

“By stopping here, I feel we’re stopping when the blues hit full maturity, which is not in any way to denigrate those who came after. The form and style had essentially found itself.”

Another terrific course by Louis Rosen comes to an end. See the 92Y Catalog for new courses.

For those who want to follow up, Louis Rosen recommends:



All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen

                                                              Louis Rosen

The Blues is the purest home-grown music that America ever produced, a complex, profound expression of life’s essential desires and struggles. It came from places as varied as the Mississippi Delta, the Texas panhandle, New Orleans, Chicago, the Eastern Seaboard and New York City. It is the essential musical language of artists as diverse as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. Louis Rosen

This is a subscription Series from the 92Y

Photo of Mr. Rosen courtesy of Louis Rosen
Opening picture from Shutterstock

About Alix Cohen (1583 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.