McKinley Blues

No, this isn’t the story of Blues music on America’s highest mountain, this is the story of influential blues musician McKinley Morganfield, a virtuoso of slide guitar.

Slide guitar is also known a bottleneck guitar because bottlenecks were the first materials used to produce the effect. Normally a guitar player varies the pitch of notes by pressing a string down against a fret. Slide guitar players place a slide across the strings and move it along without lifting, creating continuous changes in pitch, sometimes in addition to using their free fingers to fret the guitar, sometimes not. The chords available are limited, so many musicians, including Mr Morganfield, use open tuning, a technique where the guitar strings are tuned to a particular chord (often D-G-d-g-b-d) which then changes key as the slide moves up and down the neck of the guitar. The origin of the technique is not clear. There is an Indian instrument, the Vichitra Veena which is played with a slide, as are many African one stringed instruments, though these don’t share the challenges of slide guitar where strings which are playing the ‘wrong’ notes have to be muted.

Robert Johnson was one of the early influential guitarists to use the slide technique, but slide guitar couldn’t be contained and burst from the acoustic world to electric guitar with the early blues musicians, and particularly with McKinley Morganfield who really brought the sound to electric guitar. “I Cant Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” were recorded in Chicago in 1948 and became hits for Mr Morganfield, bringing him a long way from his birth in Mississippi and early days as a field hand. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard the name, it may be because you know the nickname better, McKinley Morganfield was better known as Muddy Waters.

Born in 1913 and raised by his Grandmother in Clarksdale Mississippi,  McKinley Morganfield enjoyed playing in mud, hence the nickname Muddy.  He added the ‘Waters’ himself later. Aged 13 he learned to play harmonica, but four years later, after hearing Robert Johnson he took up the guitar and by age 17 he was playing at various local events, his style a mixture of Johnson’s slide guitar playing and Son House’s tone. He married for the first time in 1932 but his wife left three years later when his first child was born, but not to her.  In 1941 collectors came from the Library of Congress, looking for Robert Johnson in the hope of recording his music.  Johnson was dead, but Muddy Waters was willing and able to demonstrate. He was recorded in 1941 and 1942 and then left the South for good in 1943 to move to Chicago.

It was Muddy Waters who brought blues, and specifically electric blues to England in the late fifties to influence an entire generation, though he himself was surprised that the music, which had arisen in black America, was losing it’s appeal within the black community who were turning to soul music. At the same time young white teenagers were becoming huge fans. The Rolling Stones named themselves for one of Water’s songs, Eric Clapton grew up loving the sound, and  Led Zeppelins ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is based on a Muddy Waters song ‘You Need Love’.  It may be his influence which spread the use of slide guitar to the rock and roll world where it has developed still further. The Rolling Stones and ZZ Top have all used the technique as have Pink Floyd and even George Harrison, who experimented with it during his time as a Beatle and on later solo songs like ‘My Sweet Lord’. Martin Scorsese the film director is a confirmed fan and has used Muddy Waters songs in many of his films, such as Casino and Goodfellas.

Muddy Waters continued to work throughout his life. His last performance was with Eric Clapton’s band in Florida in 1982. He died a few months later. He is ranked #17 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, but his true influence can’t possibly be measured.

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