Look around Chicago and even the ’burbs, and you’ll see bluesman Muddy Waters is being recognized—and rightfully so.
A few weekends ago, the village of Westmont hosted the Muddy Waters Jam and Tribute as a part of the “Taste of Westmont.” The legend and his family lived in Westmont the last 10 years of his life.
The tribute was special. Historic, too.
“The Village of Westmont is very proud to honor this great bluesman who made their home his home,” said blues singer Deitra Farr in an interview.
Muddy Waters (who was born McKinley Morganfield in 1915 in Issaquena County, Miss.) died in 1983. But his legacy of songs rich with the blues truth lives on, Farr said.
Just about all of the Defender’s readers know this famous bluesman’s name and hit songs, “Got My Mojo Workin’” and “I’m Your Hoochie-Coochie Man.” Many recall seeing this lovable, cotton-picking, blues guitarist portrayed by Jeffrey Wright in “Cadillac Records.” And quite a few know he’s considered by musicologists like Center for Black Music Research librarian Janet Harper and blues singers like Dr. Qween Wicks to be “The father of Chicago’s blues.”
Harper added, “After his arrival in Chicago in 1943, Muddy Waters’ musical style transitioned from the delta country acoustic blues to an urban electric blues. Through his signature electric slide guitar playing and vocal delivery, Muddy Waters became instrumental in defining the sound of Chicago Urban Blues.”
What you might not know, though, is the origin of the sound perfected by Waters. The blues was popularized in the Deep South a century ago, which Dominican University’s Blues Symposium founder Dr. Janice Monti said “was first heard by humming Alabama women prisoners in 1917.” (The first blues hit record was Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” and in 1920 it sold 75,000 records through word of mouth; she was Bessie Smith’s sister). However, the genesis of the blues goes back to Africa (Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Mali, Guinea) at least two centuries ago where this music we call blues was called “folk music.”
Whatever you call it, it sure is fun to listen to as we witnessed at the historical Westmont tribute concert featuring: Willie Buck, Maurice Vaughn, Omar Coleman, Kate Moss, Mike Wheeler, Tom Holland, & “Big Dog” Mercer paying respects to Muddy Waters.
This show gave even more proof than the 10-story high Muddy Waters downtown mural at 17 N. State Street that blues is not dead (see story on Mural below). Often, we hear of its demise, especially in the North, where the grandsons and granddaughters of former sharecroppers have moved on to what they deem more urbane musical forms. Truth be told, the music can seem rather depressing.
Experts suggest that’s one reason why Blacks are not the majority attendees at blues concerts – a kind of self-loathing, self-hate guiding their conspicuous absence. Themes in most blues songs center on “someone done me wrong.” But North American blues and its Cuban “changui” counterparts offer more. While many of the lyrics are personal, oft-romantic themes of love lost, dog gone and working-class woes, there’s been a rich history of protest lyrics within the art form, too. Lyrics sometimes sing to social justice, equity (iguales), sexual freedom, tolerance to gays, farm workers and human rights.
For instance, “Windy City Blues” author Windy Rosen said, “White audiences (did) get the Jim Crow rebuff in Muddy Waters’ blues classic, ‘I’m a Man, M-A-N,’ where he rejected Black men being derogatorily referred to as boy.” Sources said Muddy Waters was the glue that held the Chicago blues sound together. His colleagues at Chess Records included mostly guys like Chuck Berry, Little Milton, Howlin’ Wolf, but also perhaps the best blues singer of all – Etta James.
Farr, a prominent blues singer/songwriter and “Living Blues” magazine writer said, “With his great voice and guitar, he electrified the sound transported from the Mississippi Delta to big city Chicago. He gathered together all the great blues musicians from all over the country. He inspired so many blues musicians here and abroad. It was his music that inspired British rock groups, who in turn told the world about great blues musicians from Chicago. The Rolling Stones named themselves after one of his songs — ‘Rolling Stone.’ And like one of his songs says: ‘The blues had a baby/And the baby’s name is Rock and Roll.’”
Farr’s fellow music journalist and “Exploring Chicago Blues: Inside the Scene, Past and Present” author Rosalind Cummings-Yeates concluded: “His legacy is important because it was Chicago blues that would give birth to rock, soul, funk and most other American popular music including hip hop. All Americans should care about the Muddy Waters legacy because without his innovation you wouldn’t have the popular forms of music heard today.”
Whether we’re talking about form, content, “mojo” (magic) or “hoochie-coochie” (sexy) or “I’m a Man” (political) messages, sources say it’s quite clear, Muddy Waters was the real deal. And Westmont was wise to pay tribute to him.
Muddy Waters’ Mural Dedication…FINALLY
The noon-time sun shed light on hundreds of Muddy Waters’ fans as they poured into Chicago’s Loop for the dedication of a 10-story mural of the bluesman who many say put Chicago’s urban blues on the map. Lord knows the huge crowd that filled streets near downtown’s 17 N. State location earlier this summer needed some good news. Like a mailman, Muddy’s mural delivered – a point mirrored by blues singer and journalist Deitra Farr, who appeared there with Muddy’s widow, Marva Morganfield.
Muddy’s son Joseph Morganfield, who spoke that historic day, described the mural this way:
“It’s a big, colorful, eye-catching pic of dad. It’s Chicago paying tribute to one of its sons. Why visit? It’s learning and knowing our history.” Morganfield was one of a dozen surviving relatives present at the celebration of the huge mural designed by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra and his talented team. A twangy band led by other Morganfield brothers –- Mud and Big Bill – played tribute. So did daughter, Mercy, who spoke at the event that officially kicked off the three-day Chicago Blues Festival. Muddy Waters died in 1983 in Westmont, Illinois – a place that every July hosts a free Sunday afternoon blues festival in his honor as part of “Taste of Westmont” (see story on page 2).
For decades, Windy City blues fans decried Chicago’s step-child status in the blues world. While southern cities like Memphis, New Orleans and Jackson have traditionally been heralded as blues capitals, sources say the Muddy Waters’ mural finally announces Chicago official entry in the world’s blues sweepstakes. And since experts agree he was the spirit guide of electric urban blues, it’s only fitting that finally Chicago honors Muddy Waters’ “mojo.”
Two Chicago-area professors contextualized the man and the mural this way.
Jonita Lattimore, a lyric soprano as well as a well-known gospel-blues singer, who teaches voice at Roosevelt University, said: “Muddy Waters was a man who was true to the music, a man who served the music. He was a tangible icon, accessible, honest, real, and accomplished, not only in Chicago, but in the world. We, as Chicagoans, need to continue to celebrate his legacy, and the mural is one way to do that.”
University of Illinois at Chicago English Lecturer and “blues poet” Dr. Tara Betts, explained:
“The Muddy Waters mural is a tribute to one of the most well-known figures in the blues tradition, but it’s also a reminder that Chicago has the indelible stamp of the blues as part of its legacy.”