100 Years After His Birth, Muddy Waters Still Looms Large

The Mississippi-born bluesman shaped and transformed American music

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Muddy Waters, performing at the New Victoria Theatre (UK)

If the blues is the backbone of American popular music, then Muddy Waters was the backbone of the blues. Sure, there were plenty of significant blues artists before him and others after his heyday, but Waters, who was born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena County, Mississippi one hundred years ago this week, was a singer, guitarist, composer, and bandleader of such elemental power that he’s come to stand for everything that’s soul-stirring about the music itself. Without Waters, it’s safe to say, rock and roll and its many derivations would never have turned out the way they did. Listing those influenced by him would be a fool’s game, their number is so legion, but let’s just mention a band called the Rolling Stones, who in honor of their hero, named themselves after a classic Muddy Waters song.

Moving north in the early 1940s, Waters came to epitomize Chicago blues, a genre that literally electrified the rural roots music that came before it. For the next four decades, until his death in 1983, Waters tirelessly spread the message of essential American music. One of the great tributes paid him was his filmed appearance at the 1976 all-star rock extravaganza, The Last Waltz, captured by director Martin Scorsese for the film of the same name. During “Mannish Boy,” Scorsese never once takes his camera off of Waters, revealing his unique vocal artistry and unmatched artistic intensity. As always, Muddy stole the show.

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