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Hidden Gems of the NLS Collection: The Life and Music of Muddy Waters

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There are few musicians whose life’s work could have influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and Johnny Winter. While the rich music of the Mississippi Delta has boasted the names of many brilliant musicians over the years, it was McKinley Morganfield (1913-1983)—better known as “Muddy Waters”—who served as the torch bearer of the Delta Blues. As we celebrate African American Music Appreciation Month, let us look at the remarkable life and music of Muddy Waters.

How does one get the name “Muddy Waters?” He told Robert Palmer of Rolling Stone, “When I got big enough to crawl around, I would play in the mud and try to eat it.” His grandmother nicknamed him “Muddy,” and his friends later added “Waters.”

A portrait photograph of Muddy Waters facing forward.
Muddy Waters and his orchestra. Photographic print, 1964. From the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Waters started playing around with music at the age of three, attempting to use anything that made a sound to create music. He took up the harmonica, and eventually began playing it publicly at suppers and picnics into his early teenage years. He later would become a master of the slide guitar and compose timeless melodies. He told Palmer, “My blues looks so simple, so easy to do, but it’s not. They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world to play.” His musical mentors growing up included Son House, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson. They encapsulated the Delta Blues, having preached and sung in cars and on trains for a decade.

Things changed for Muddy Waters in 1941. He had just sold his horse for two dollars and fifty cents in order to buy his first guitar from Sears and Roebuck in Chicago. When Alan Lomax showed up in Clarksdale and recorded Muddy for the Library of Congress, Muddy was the most powerful and widely esteemed guitarist in his part of the Delta. Lomax returned in 1942 and recorded Muddy again, but these recordings were for the Library’s archives, and Muddy wanted to hear his records on jukeboxes. In 1943, he left Mississippi for Chicago, and though friends told him his down-home blues wouldn’t be popular there, he was soon playing at house parties and South Side taverns where the noise level necessitated his switch from acoustic to electric guitar.

The music of Muddy Waters is steeped in the blues tradition of the early twentieth century, but it also plays a key role in the development of the rock music of the 1960s and ’70s. Eric Clapton called Muddy Waters his father and arranged to take him along as a “special guest star” on his 1979 cross-country stadium tour, mainly to expose him to a vast new audience. However, one might suspect, Clapton was looking to learn from the Delta Blues master. In fact, Muddy’s last public appearance was with Clapton on June 30, 1982, at a concert in Miami. Clapton served as best man in Muddy’s 1979 wedding when he married Marva Jean Brooks. Whenever they were in Chicago, the Rolling Stones would also pay him a visit. In 1981, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and pianist Ian Stewart sat in with Muddy at his show at the Checker Board Lounge on Chicago’s South Side—a collaboration for the ages!

It wasn’t just his slide guitar playing that was legendary. Waters was featured in the 1978 Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, performing “Mannish Boy.” In this performance, Muddy would use his throat and contort the shape of his face in such a way that each specific movement would affect the sound in a precise and calibrated manner.

He even opened for the rock band ZZ Top on a tour in 1981, and the group was also behind a 1988 fundraising effort to provide a permanent Muddy Waters exhibit in the Delta Blues Museum of the Carnegie Library in Clarksdale, Miss. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons commissioned a guitar to be built out of wood from Muddy’s childhood home, and the instrument is still on display in the museum, along with the remains of the cabin. It was on the footsteps of the cabin where Alan Lomax first recorded Waters in 1941. Gibbons refers to the instrument as the “Muddywood” guitar.

If you enjoyed learning about Muddy Waters, then please enjoy these resources from the NLS Collection that relate to this post. You can access many of our materials any time using Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access. To borrow music-related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact the Music Section either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].


Block, Rory. Classics of Country Blues Guitar. Learn to play some of the greatest Delta blues guitar solos of all time, taught in accurate detail by a contemporary master of the genre. Rory Block breaks down these fingerstyle pieces phrase-by-phrase, providing the details of how to play them with all the nuances and subtleties of the originals. Rory also gets you started on improvisation by providing a number of variations on the intros, solos and endings of the pieces. (DBM02193)

Brown, Bill. Acoustic Delta Blues. Bill Brown teaches how to play acoustic delta blues on guitar without the use of music or tabs. Includes shuffles, boogies, and thumb rhythms. Level 1 difficulty. (DBM02230)

____Brown Sugar: for Guitar. Bill Brown teaches all of the licks for the rhythm and lead guitars in the style of ZZ Top without the use of music notation. Level 2. (DBM02977)

____ Highway 61 Revisited. Bill Brown teaches how to play all of the licks for this open D slide guitar blues hit in the style of Johnny Winter without the use of music notation. This version based on the album Second Winter. Level 2. (DBM02949)

____ Layla: for Guitar. Music by Eric Clapton and Ben Gordon. Bill Brown teaches how to play a fingerstyle solo in the Edgar Cruz style to Layla without the use of music or tab. (DBM02477)

____ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Bill Brown teaches how to play the guitar part to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in the style of the Rolling Stones without using music or tab. Level 2 difficulty. (DBM02332)

Gordon, Robert. Can’t Be Satisfied : The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. Life and career of bluesman Muddy Waters (1915-1983) from the Mississippi Delta. First recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress, Waters soon moved to Chicago and began to record for the Chess brothers, creating the electrified blues that revolutionized American music. Foreword by Keith Richards. Some strong language. 2002. (DB 55484)

Grossman, Stefan. Country Blues Guitar: Ten Radio Broadcasts. The music of Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightning Hopkins, Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Boy Fuller are is presented and discussed. Each musician is spotlighted in his own segment. This series of 17 broadcasts will present to the student the legendary names of Country Blues Guitar and give a clear picture of how blues styles and techniques developed. Cartridge only. (DBM01495)

Lidel, Paul. Beginning Blues Guitar. Teaches blues chords, rhythm fills, blues scales, and blues guitar solos. Also discusses the styles of blues musicians such as B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Muddy Waters. Cartridge only. (DBM01729)

Mannish Boy: as Performed by Muddy Waters in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Contains instructions on how to play this song on guitar entirely by audio instruction and examples. Produced by TalkingTabs. Level 2. Cartridge only. (DBM03119)

Roth, Arlen. Bottleneck/Slide Guitar. Introduces bottleneck/slide guitar techniques used by blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, country musicians like Jimmie Rodgers, and rock groups like Cream. Teaches blues and country licks, turnarounds, fills, intros and endings, and solos in songs such as “Good Morning Blues,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Dust My Broom,” and “Rolling and Tumbling.” (DBM00444)

Sokolow, Fred. Electric Blues and Rock Guitar: Styles and Techniques. Using several sample tunes, Fred teaches how to play electric slide guitar in the styles of the blues masters, the players who inspired Johnny Winter, The Allman Brothers, Ron Wood and the rest of today’s rock slide guitarists. Several techniques are covered as you learn the techniques of Tampa Red (open D), Muddy Waters (open G), Elmore James (open E) and Robert Nighthawk (standard tuning) and how to apply these techniques to rock progressions. Cartridge only. (DBM01483)

Something to Talk About. As performed by Bonnie Raitt. Contains instructions on how to play this song on guitar entirely by audio instruction and examples. Level 3. Cartridge only. (DBM03159)


Kraehenbuehl, David. Jazz and Blues. Books 5 and 6. From the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students Series. Bar over bar format. (BRM27012)

Large Print

Blues, Boogie, and Jazz. From the Golden Music Big Note Series. Unaccompanied melodies with lyrics and chord symbols included. (LPM00341)

Would you like to learn more about folklorist Alan Lomax? Here is more information about the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center.

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