Muddy Waters: "Country Boy" in Paris

Apr 4, 2017

It took a "country boy" who "stayed out all night long" to create the modern Chicago blues. With his 1948 Aristocrat release, "I Can't Be Satisfied" b/w "I Feel Like Goin' Home," Muddy Waters transformed a pair of songs he'd first recorded on the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi into the urgent, amplified sound of post-war urban blues.

The renowned folklorist Alan Lomax caught up with Muddy (then still going by his given name, McKinley Morganfield) on a field trip for the Library of Congress to Coahoma County in Mississippi in 1941. Muddy was recommended to Lomax as an exemplar of the Delta blues lineage that ran from Charley Patton to Son House to Robert Johnson to the then 28-year-old tractor operator at Stovall's. On his first meeting with Lomax, he recorded "Country Blues" and "I's Be Troubled." The former was an adaptation of the Delta standard, "Walkin' Blues," the latter an original prototype for "I Can't Be Satisfied." Of "Country Blues," Lomax wrote, "Here was a poem as artful, as carefully structured as an eighteenth-century love lyric, yet marvelously shaped for singing."

Muddy Waters

I took notice of Muddy for the first time one spring day after school when a girlfriend put The Best of Muddy Waters on the turntable and out came "I Just Want to Make Love to You." I've listened to him almost every day since and recall with delight the many times I saw the great man in person. Today is Muddy's birthday anniversary; while his family sticks to a birth year of 1915, it's more likely that he was born two years earlier.

Here he is in Paris in 1964 on the most beautifully filmed performance that I've ever seen of him. It's from a tour with the American Folk Blues Festival where his accompanists include Ransom Knowling on bass, and Willie Smith on drums. The redoubtable Otis Spann, who played with Muddy for close to 15 years, is at the piano. James Cotton, the harmonica player who died last month, spend the years 1955-'66 with Muddy, but he didn't accompany him on this tour. The result is that Muddy plays the solo on "Country Boy," and the cameras capture his guitar playing in exquisite, close-up detail.