Preaching the Blues: The Mississippi Delta of Muddy Waters

Peter Rutkoff and Will Scott

When Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield,
traveled north to Chicago in 1943, he carried with him a whole generation
of blues music. The Muddy Waters whom folklorist Alan Lomax recorded
at Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale in 1941-42 played and sang
the blues of rural Mississippi in the 1930s. Waters’ Delta
blues reflected the stark beauty of the northern Mississippi landscape.
Flat as far as the eye could see, farmed by black sharecroppers,
the Mississippi Delta chained its African American labor to the
land and produced the richest music in America. Like his musical
mentors, Son House, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson, Waters belonged
to a rich and expressive African American culture. Their music came
from the plantation even as it provided a way out of the sharecroppers’
fields, a relief from the system of “furnish” and “settle”—food,
fertilizer, clothes, and a mule in exchange for a share of the crop—that
enforced white economic and political control. The power of the
blues—its creative power—derived from the interconnected
secular and religious cultural patterns of tens of thousands of
African Americans living in the Delta. The blues belonged to a whole
culture, one that sang spirituals and worksongs, that juked on “Sadys”
and prayed on Sundays, that did the shout and the shimmy, that told
tall tales and true stories, that conjured with black cat bones
and mojo, too, that wore red flannel and bore children at home,
that improvised the dozens and signified with marvelous verbal dexterity,
and that survived poverty and oppressive racism, famine and flood.
The Delta blues bore the fruit of its origins, simultaneously secular
and sacred, American and West African.

“I Be’s Troubled”

Well [if] I feel tomorrow
Like I feel today,
[I’m] gonna pack my suitcase
And make my getaway
Lord, I’m troubled, I’m all worried in my mind
And I never been satisfied,
And I just can’t keep from cryin’.(1)

Muddy Waters played “I Be’s Troubled” on the steel-string
slide guitar which he had tuned to an open G (the so-called Spanish
tuning) combining the rhythmic and instrumental qualities of the
Delta blues style with the lyric and sentiment of Baptist spirituals.
“I Be’s Troubled” began as a blues, with Waters
playing a sequence of sharply picked notes followed by rhythmic
strums. He repeated the sequence three times, each time varying
the accents, or the back-beat. In the opening phrase of the introduction,
even before he allowed the guitar and slide to vocalize the melody,
Muddy Waters established the improvisational and polyrhythmic basis
of his blues. The apparent simplicity of the first bar of the song
disclosed a startling intricacy of rhythmic and stylistic expression.
Muddy maintained that intricacy through the introduction, using
the slide to swoop up and down the neck, “worrying”
the notes, intensifying the rhythm, and playing the melody first
in the bass and then the treble registers in anticipation of the
lryics. Muddy’s layering of the melodic, harmonic, and the
rhythmic created a moving spiritual and emotional feeling.

Photo: In
Mississippi’s Delta area, Oct. 1939: Picking Cotton. Marion
Post Wolcott. Reproduced from the Collections of the Library of Congress.

The open-tuned slide
guitar style that Muddy Water (he added the ‘s’ later)
played allowed him to shape and search for notes and sounds evoked
a rich and complex historical development. West African musical
influences on the blues, especially from the Niger-Congo region,
emphasized intensive polyphony, while others, from northern Nigeria,
Mali, and Ghana derived from Islamic sources. Steel-string bottleneck
playing incorporated the Muslim-influenced wavering, or melismatic
effect, that combined with an open or drone string that gave some
West African-derived music a single tonal center. This melismatic
style also lent itself to call and response patterns that West Africans
carried far into African American culture. West African musicians
often played single-string bows, sometimes resonating against the
body or into the earth to achieve the melismatic, droning effect
that African American musicians incorporated into the one-stringed
family of diddly-bows or the multiple-stringed banjos in the nineteenth
century.(2) “I Be’s Satisfied”
bore the stamp of this West African and African American heritage.

The lyric of the song also brought several other African American
traditions together. “I Be’s Troubled” combined
the obvious theme of loss and sorrow, in this case of a lost love,
and evoked the familiar spiritual idea of troubles (“Nobody
Knows the Trouble I’ve Had”) with that of movement (“Trabelin’
On”). Songs about spiritual and physical weariness, about
being troubled and wanting to travel beyond the present, nurtured
the blues. Even the syntax of the title, “I Be’s Troubled,”
revealed the song’s cultural heritage. Many West African languages
and the African-American creolized Gullah have not distinguished
between past and present in some verb usage. For example, “slaves
indicated habitual actions, past or present, by using be plus the
action verb, as . . . ‘you orter be carry money with you.’”
In this way, “I Be’s Troubled” could also be understood
as “I was troubled for some time,” rather than a simple
grammatical mistaking of ‘be’ for ‘am.’(3)
“I Be’s Troubled” stretched out the action and
emphasized the temporal, enduring quality of suffering. And, as
Muddy Waters added, the only cure for suffering was leaving.

In the Delta, each settle, the moment when sharecroppers traded
in the value of their crops against the debt of the owner’s
furnish, carried with it the opportunity for cheating sharecroppers
out of the fruits of their labor. Plantation owners and factors
achieved this through complex manipulations of simple arithmetic
figures or through the application of unscrupulously high interest
rates on the furnish. The black responses, “skipping off”
(leaving) or “getting over” (doing a less diligent job
on someone else’s money) were ways to get even. “I Be’s
Troubled” in Muddy Waters’ case was also “getting-over”
over the troubles of heartache and of exploitation. In 1941 the
song expressed the dream of leaving the Delta, not just for Muddy
Waters but for the men and women who worked with him at Stovall,
and a hundred other plantations, for those who dreamed of a better

The song’s refrain, “Yeah and I’m never bein’
satisfied,” and “I just can’t keep from cryin’,”
repeated the be syntactical construction, and connected the tune
to “SATISFYED” a popular ring game played by adolescent
girls in Clarksdale. “SATISFYED,” a variation on a stealing
partner game, placed its participants in a circle where they chanted
and clapped in syncopation reminiscent of old-time spirituals that
they called hallies (for hallelujah). As an improvised call and
response shout, the refrain of “SATISFIED” moved back
and forth between leader and congregation.

It takes a rockin’ chair to rock
It takes a soft ball to roll
It takes a song like this
To satisfy my soul.
ain’t never been
ain’t never been

In 1948 Muddy Waters recorded “I Be’s Troubled”
for Aristocrat Records in Chicago, under the title “I Can’t
Be Satisfied.”(5) An artifact
of the Great Migration of African Americans to Chicago, it reflected
Waters’ altered perspective from the south to the north, of
someone who had already “skipped off.”

Well, I’m goin’ away to leave
Won’t be back for more
Goin’ back down south, child
Don’t you want to go.
Woman I’m troubled, I be all worried in mind
Well baby I just can’t keep be satisfied
And I can’t keep from cryin’.

Muddy Water’s first version, “I Be’s Troubled,”
had documented the world of plantation sharecropping from which
the 28-year-old McKinley Morganfield had not yet been able to “pack
my suitcase and make my getaway.”

Like ring-games, the “toasts” and
verbal rhyme play of the Delta belonged to the Delta’s blues
culture. Bawdy rhymes and stories, recited by males, part of the
cultural ritual of “signifyin’” that reached back
to West African trickster folktales that had survived in the new
world and maintained themselves in the Delta.(6)
In a culture that prized verbal jousting and panache, the Titanic
tale, an orally-transmitted toast, found a home in juke joints like
Clarksdale’s Dipsy Doodle, a club on the Negro side of the
railroad tracks. “The Sinking of the Titanic,” may have
been composed by a blind Gospel songwriter Charles Haffer, a street
evangelist, who recited his verse at a Baptist fair in Clarksdale:

Just then a millionaire girl walked from the bottom of the deck
She say “come back Po’Shine, and save po’ me.
I might turn your wife, it’s true.”
He looked back over his shoulders and said
“Honey, you’re purty-lookin jelly roll, it’s
He said, “There are a thousand
In New York as good as you.”

When younger people took Haffer’s poem, intended as a broadside
about the evil of money, the horror of hell, and the possibility
of redemption, and walked it across the street to the Dipsy Doodle,
it became “Shine and the Titanic.”

Just then a thousand white folks plopped up on the deck. And said,
“Shine old boy, come save me. I’ll make you richer
than a Shine can be.” Shine says, “There’s fish
in the ocean, there’s whales in the sea: hop your white
asses over board and swim like me.” The captain’s
daughter . . . says “Shine old boy, come save po’
me. But Shine said, “Your petticoat look low and your words
may be true, but there’s women on the shore got better booty
than you.”(7)

In Clarksdale, blacks could be arrested for walking down the street
that ran by the white-only swimming pool or for being out after
midnight. The verbal agility and satire of this Baptist juke-joint
toast expressed racial and social rebelliousness and resentment
cloaked in rhetoric as ancient as West African culture itself. Forty
years after the Lomax team “collected” the juke version
of “Po’ Shine and the Titanic,” William Ferris,
from the University of Mississippi, recorded its cousin in the Delta.

So Shine jumped overboard and it was a lady out there.
The lady said, “Shine, Shine save poor me.”
I’ll give you more pussy than your black eye can see.”
Shine say, “You got eight fingers, you got two thumbs.”
“Git your white ass out here and swim some.”(8)

The Dipsy Doodle in Clarksdale, or McKinley Morganfield’s
juke out on Stovall Plantation about five miles north of town, provided
locales for Delta blacks to come together and form a community.
Saturday night at the juke, Sunday morning at church, equal parts
in a culture that sustained a life where so many folks could say,
“I Be’s Troubled.”

Photo: Clarksdale,
MS, Nov. 1939: A woman jitterbugging in a juke joint on a Saturday
afternoon. Marion Post Wolcott. Reproduced from the Collections of
the Library of Congress.

Rocking Daniel:
The Plantation Church

“That’s a song I made up. . . . I was just walking the
road and I heard a church song. . . .” Muddy Waters told Lomax
and the team of Fisk University folklore “investigators”
in August 1941.(9) Working on the Coahoma
County Project, the Fisk group found Muddy at Stovall Plantation
where he had come at the age of three, in 1918, to live with his
grandmother. A modest plantation—compared with some, like
King and Anderson that owned 17,000 acres—Stovall farmed 3,500
acres of mostly cotton, supported about ninety sharecropping families
who lived by the furnish, the settle, and the take up (borrowing
to get through the month). McKinley Morganfield’s household
farmed the land assigned to it, probably forty acres, and starting
at the age of nine the young Muddy (that “little muddy baby,”
a nickname bestowed by his grandmother) spent much of his time in
the fields picking and chopping cotton. “I was a three-hundred-pound
gal,” one woman remembered, “three hundred pound a day.”(10)
In the Delta, African Americans spent little time in schools—there
were no high schools for blacks in the county until the 1950s. What
little schooling they received was substandard (some schools were
ordered not to teach the complexities of interest calculation for
fear of “undermining” the settle) and most often provided
by northern philanthropy. At Stovall children were educated either
at home or in church.(11)

Like most Delta plantations Stovall was a self-contained world.
Unpainted cabins, mostly shotgun, see-through wood structures, occasionally
three-room affairs, lined up along the main dirt road of the plantation.
Back doors opened right out into the fields. Many, lined with newspaper
(some said to keep the devil distracted) and heated by wood-burning
stoves had neither electricity nor plumbing. Sharecroppers dressed
in the two sets of work clothes and shoes that the planters provided
as part of the furnish. Whites believed that sharecroppers, like
slaves, were no good with numbers, and they deemed the stock of
the local store “two pair of pants and a gallon of molasses”
more than adequate.(12) Occasionally
a plantation store might, after 1920, feature a single gas pump
just in front of the porch benches and coke tubs.

The “New South Plantation” centered less on the old
big house than on the long and imposing gin, the scene of the settle,
and a nearby corrugated iron-roofed toolshed, a large wood structure
where tenants came for tools and mules—only late in the 1930s
for tractors.(13) On Stovall, a small
church, Oak Ridge Baptist, completed the plantation’s buildings.
Oak Ridge Baptist, which McKinley’s uncle, Louis Matthews
Morganfield attended, provided Stovall’s African Americans
with a place to “jubilate.” At Oak Ridge Baptist they
could shout during the hot and humid August revivals that coincided
with lay-by time, the interval between chopping or weeding and the
harvest, and sing spirituals, like “Get Right with You Jesus,”
for their conversion at the Mourning Bench.(14)
The Oak Ridge congregation often came together to share the songs
of the old-time religion—dancing without crossing their feet
in what they called “Rocking Daniel.”(15)

Oak Ridge Baptist Church provided shelter for the few months a year
that children received educational instruction. While Stovall plantation
provided precious little in formal schooling, its owner, Howard
Stovall, liked a good tune and often hired local musicians to play
at family parties. Music seeped into the plantation from all directions—from
the church, from the frolics on Saturday afternoons and the fish
fries, and barbeques and picnics at ball games. As a young man McKinley
Morganfield played and heard the music at Stovall on all these occasions.
But, as he once said, in order to sing the blues you “had
to go to church to get this particular thing in your soul.”(16)

McKinley’s uncle hoped that his own son, Willie, and his nephew
McKinley, would follow in his pastoral footsteps. In a sense they
did. Reverend Willie Morganfield became a Baptist preacher and famous
gospel singer in Birmingham, Alabama, Cleveland, Ohio, and finally
back in Clarksdale. His cousin, McKinley, never joined the church
but as he acknowledged, his music never really left it. In 1936,
however, Willie’s family left Stovall for Clarksdale where
Reverend Louis Matthews Morganfield had been called to pastor.

The Seabird: Black Clarksdale

The Clarksdale of the 1920s and 1930s called itself the “golden
buckle on the cotton belt,” and claimed more (white) millionaires
per capita than any other town in America. The Clarksdale Chamber
of Commerce in its brochure “Clarksdale—The Wonder City
of the Delta,” boasted that the town “possesses 19 churches
divided among the following denominations: Baptist, Methodists,
1st Presbyterian . . . and in addition there are ten negro churches.”(17)
Interestingly, the Fisk study group found eight Negro churches and
over one hundred ministers in 1941.(18)
In 1940 Clarksdale’s population reached twelve thousand, its
growth steady since its founding in 1869 when John Clark first settled
in Coahoma (“Red Panther” in Choctaw) County. In 1903,
the year he reportedly “discovered” the blues in Tutweiller,
a small railroad town just outside of Parchman Farm, the notorious
state prison, about sixty miles south of Clarksdale, W. C. Handy
wrote of Clarksdale’s brothel, or New World, district. “Across
the Y. & M. V. tracks . . . there was the local red light district.
To the New World came lush octoroons and quadroons from Louisiana,
soft cream-colored fancy gals from Mississippi towns.”(19)
In 1930 the city opened a Negro branch of the Carnegie Free Library
downtown. While blacks remained disenfranchised in Clarksdale they
comprised 72 percent of the population of the county, and over 80
percent of the city, just before the outbreak of World War II. The
city’s finest hotel, the Alcazar, offered 125 rooms to any
white visitor for between $1.50 and $3.50 a night.

Like every city in the Delta, race and class determined the social
geography of Clarksdale. Poor and middle-class whites lived in close
proximity to each other and to the Brickyard, a small Negro middle-class
neighborhood. Upper-middle-class whites lived on the other side
of town, across the Sunflower River, whose bridge provided a direct
route to the downtown shopping area with its banks, post office,
and library. Black working class and day laborers lived in the Roundyard,
a neighborhood just off the Negro business district that centered
on a small area separated from white downtown by the railroad tracks
that ran through the center of Clarksdale. The middle class of the
Brickyard did not normally approve of the Roundyard’s ways.

The town’s two thousand whites, as well as the ten thousand
who lived scattered throughout the county could avail themselves
of the city’s fifty-one food stores, twenty-two restaurants,
eight furniture and appliance stores, five lumber yards, eleven
automobile dealers, and nine drug stores. While these businesses
did not bar their doors to blacks, they maintained separate “colored”
entrances, often kept separate ledgers, identified “colored”
patrons by the initials COL in the margins, and usually served black
customers on Saturday afternoons and evenings, where by custom,
whites chose to remain absent. Whites owned all the businesses in
the white downtown and often sent trucks out to the plantations
to bring patrons into town on Saturdays, especially during the harvest,
and rarely during the winter.

Photo: Clarksdale,
MS, Nov. 1939: Issaquena Avenue, downtown Clarksdale, on
a Sunday afternoon. Marion Post Wolcott. Reproduced from the Collections
of the Library of Congress.

The Negro business
district, its “Beale” streets, a few square blocks centered
on the corner of Fourth and Issaquena had all the black-owned businesses
in Clarksdale, as well as those owned by a few Jewish, Italian,
and Chinese families. Clarksdale’s small immigrant population
“about twenty-five or thirty families of Jewish storekeepers
. . . a few Greeks . . . a few Syrian families . . . and a few Chinamen
engaged in laundries . . . and some dope on the side” lived
in between, often unwelcome by both black and white.(20)
Fourth and Issaquena had Clarksdale’s only black hotel, the
Savoy theater, a single furniture store, three gas stations, a host
of jukes and cafés and beer parlors, barber shops, beauty
parlors, groceries, and a funeral parlor. The two largest black
churches stood directly across the street from the Dipsy Doodle,
a favorite hangout for plantation blacks in the ’30s who came
to town on Saturday nights to dance, eat tamales, drink beer, and
listen to the blues on the juke’s Seabird, as they called
the bright new Seeburg jukebox that sat in the middle of the floor.(21)

In the late 1930s many of the plantations near
to Clarksdale—Stovall, Hopson, and King-Anderson—hired
day laborers from among the men who lived in town. Early in the
mornings, plantation trucks appeared at Fourth and Issaquena, where
pickers congregated, to pick up laborers to work in the fields.
When the need increased, plantations chartered Greyhound buses and
by late summer 1941, labor agents appeared from Missouri and Arkansas.
Even before Pearl Harbor, the international demand for cotton raised
prices and wages in the Delta. In a single week in July 1941, both
doubled. “Not since 1926 had the wages reached such a level.
Everybody was in the fields. People who had been working for meager
wages in the town quit their jobs.” Labor became so scarce
in Clarksdale that summer that “white women were driving through
the Negro residential district seeking someone who would work for

The labor shortage was one factor that led Delta plantation owners
to shift from mules to tractors. In his late twenties, McKinley
Morganfield became a tractor driver at Stovall and supplemented
his income by operating a juke at his home, and played downtown
in Clarksdale on a regular basis. Clarksdale’s jukes provided
Waters a place to play and allowed him to learn from the host of
itinerant blues musicians who performed in and around the town.
“When I heard Son House I should have broke my bottleneck.”(23)
Waters might have easily said the same about Charlie Patton or Robert
Johnson. By the time Lomax and his team finally recorded Waters
in 1941, they found a mature Delta blues player who sounded for
all the world as if he had been playing with these legends for all
his life.

“Preaching the Blues”: The Legacy of Patton, House,
and Johnson

In a sense Muddy Waters had. During the 1930s Delta blues men had
been traveling, scuffling, and playing up and down the region for
most of the decade. Making three bucks a night at a fish fry seemed
a lot more attractive than picking and chopping cotton. They had
chosen an itinerant life, a life of thumbing rides on the backs
of pickup trucks and riding slow trains like the Pea Vine and the
Yellow Dog. Like barnstorming ball players, the blues men of the
Depression enjoyed the good life even when none existed, dressed
to the nines when they could, and indifferent when they couldn’t.
“Young, poor and mobile, they traveled from the countryside
to the towns and cities and back again.”(24)

Little wonder that movement played such an important role in their
music, from the ever present railroad,

How long, how long, babe
Has that evenin’ train been gone
[“How Long,
How Long Blues”]

to the surge of a powerful automobile,

I said flash your lights, mama
your horn won’t even blow
[“Terraplane Blues”].

Each image had lent itself to the ecstatic wonder
of sex,

Hitch up my pony saddl’ up my black mare
I’m gonna find a rider, oh baby in this world somewhere

[“Pony Blues”].

And each related to the inner structure of blues music itself. “The
devil was in the turn-around,” the blues musicians said. The
turn-around, present in the blues between verse and chorus allowed
musicians to lay their stamp on a song. A variation on a boogie-woogie
lick, the turn-around brought a tune back to its beginning, completing
the circle, making the blues into a ring.(25)
The turn-around, where the blues man could “signify”
on the entire history of the song, since he had surely taken it
in admiration from someone else, lay at both the beginning and the
end. In railroad parlance the turn-around, the place where one turned
the engine around, completed the metaphor.

The blues men, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Patton, who
schooled Muddy Waters, formed the circle of the Delta blues. They
had been roaming around the Delta for a decade, in fast cars, on
slow trains, preaching as they sang the blues.

Eddie James House, Jr., Son, came from Lyons, a small town near
Clarksdale, worked and drifted throughout the south during the 1920s,
and only began to play guitar late in that decade. When he took
up the bottle-neck, perhaps in 1927, House thought that he had left
his deeply religious upbringing behind him. But, like many Delta
blues players, his music owed an enormous debt to the church and
to spirituals. Following a two-year stint at Parchman Farm prison
for killing another man (in self-defense, it was said), House often
played in and around Lyons, an easy ride by mule or car for folks
at Stovall to come hear him. His first recording session in 1930,
for Paramount at a studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, included “Preachin’
the Blues” and “My Black Mama.” Robert Johnson
would recast both six years later in “Walking Blues”
and “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil).”

House’s songs drew their breath from religious feelings and
imagery even as they seemed to criticize it. “Preachin’
the Blues” contained verses like:

Oh, I went in my room, bowed down to pray (x2)
Till the blues come along, and they blowed my spirit away.(26)

The song attested to House’s struggle with
the church—I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher, and
I sure won’t have to work
—even as he employed the
African and African American tradition of derision, a form of social
criticism directed less at the spirit than at the institution. But,
as House explained later, “I’m preaching on this side
and the blues is on that side. I says, well I’ll just put
them together and name it ‘Preachin’ the Blues.’”(27)

In “John the Revelator,” which combined the cadence
of a preacher with a biblical vision, House left no doubt about
the spiritual sources of his music. Son House played with great
tonal resonance in songs like “My Black Mama,” and “Preachin’
the Blues,” where his bottle-neck style laid a spare and sharp
vibration, a West African inspired “whirring” that snaked
in and around the deep power of his voice. But in “John the
Revelator” House took a gospel song and sound, which he sang
unaccompanied and slipped it into the protective cover of the twelve-bar
AAB pattern of the blues.

Tell me who’s that writin’,
          John the Revelator
Tell me who’s that writin’,
          John the Revelator
Who’s that writin’,
          John the Revelator,
wrote the book of the seven seals.

Robert Johnson took House’s “Preachin’ the Blues”
and turned it inside out. House sang “Preachin’ the
Blues” as an emotionally intense, highly pitched and strained
spiritual with hints of work-song exhales. He accompanied the song
with his trademark bottle-neck style and simple turn-around of two
thumb-snapped notes followed by three upward picks. Johnson took
the same tune with which he knew his audience was familiar and raised
the stakes. His “Preachin’ the Blues (Up Jumped the
Devil),” recorded in 1936 after talent scout Howard Speir
had “auditioned” and passed him along to the American
Record Company, moved with the pulse of an express train. Johnson’s
open-tuned bottle-neck guitar resembled House’s loose almost
antique sound, but Johnson’s pace and technique left House’s
older version in his tracks. Johnson’s turn-around, a set
of call and response riffs picked on bass and treble strings as
he simultaneously maintained the driving rhythm with his thumb,
provided evidence of the West African trickster-derived “devil
at the crossroad” explanation of his new-found musical prowess.

The blu-u-ses
           Is a low-down shakin’
           (spoken, “Yes,
preach’ em now”)
Mmmmmm mmmmmm
           Is a low-down shakin’
You ain’t never had ’em, I
           hope you never will.(28)

Johnson’s blues, his “preach ’em now,” not
only glossed Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues,”
but connected him to a tradition that reached back to Bessie Smith’s
“Preach Them Blues,” (Preach them blues / sing them
blues / they certainly sound good to me
) and extended forward
to B. B. King’s exclamation about the blues, “I feel
like I’m in church and even want to shout.”(29)

Yet, Johnson’s genius, rather than his “devil’s”
persona, derived from his originality. Staying entirely within the
Mississippi blues tradition, Johnson nonetheless emerged as its
great innovator. Sometime in 1933, coincident with his crossroads/trickster
conversion Johnson may have adapted the boogie-woogie blues piano
style into a new open-tuning guitar style. Derived from the influences
of Roosevelt Sykes and Leroy Carr, contemporaries Johnson met and
played with in Helena, Arkansas, and St. Louis, the new tuning allowed
him to play piano-based accompaniments, the picked embellishments
that made his playing so complexly intricate, layered, and rhythmic
on the blues guitar. By the time of his legendary 1936 recording
sessions, Johnson had mastered the tuning and technique that allowed
him to participate in the blues tradition that he was in the process
of transcending. A song like “Sweet Home Chicago” had
as many as twenty-three earlier melodic versions including Sykes’
“The Honey Dripper,” and Kokomo Arnold’s “Original
Old Kokomo Blues.”(30) But in
Johnson’s hands it rode straight and hard toward its destination,
turned around in an elegant and fast bass-riff, and went its way
again, fast as lightning.

Oh, baby, don’t you want to go, oh
Baby don’t you want to go,
Back to the land of California
           To my sweet home Chicago.

Robert Johnson’s “additive” approach to the blues,
his process of borrowing and then adapting, revealed itself clearly
in “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” which he crafted after
Charlie Patton’s “You Gonna Need Someone When You Die.”
As in the case of Johnson’s amendment to Son House, his version
retained Patton’s hymn-based spiritual origins.

Charlie Patton, too, owed his life, at least his culture, to the
cotton plantations of the Delta, specifically to the Dockery Plantation
in the central Delta. As the son of a sanctified minister, Patton
spent his early years at Dockery, a plantation of more than eighteen
thousand acres, among the four hundred families that sharecropped
for owner Will Dockery. He and Son House crossed paths at Dockery
and again in the late 1920s in Clarksdale. Patton also spent a good
deal of time in Marigold, a small town just two miles south of Mound
Bayou. For all the rough edge in his voice Patton never parted ways
with his religious upbringing, instead, like House, finding ways
to insinuate that musical influence into the blues.(31)
Patton recast a traditional spiritual into “You’re Gonna
Need Somebody When You Die,” which he recorded in 1929. He
retained the spiritual’s AA-Refrain pattern and added a short
sermon in the middle of the song. Patton’s rhymed couplets,
right from the pulpit, his repetitions of “an . . . an . .
. an . . . an . . .” distinguished the religious foundations
of the song. Later, Robert Johnson turned Patton’s tune into
a railroad song and retitled it “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,”
preserving the religious melody and structure but restating the
subject in very worldly terms.

It’s the last fair deal goin’ down
It’s the last fair deal goin’ down
It’s the last fair deal goin’ down, Good Lord.
             On that Gulfport
Island Road.(32)

Patton, House, and Johnson, the three great innovators of the Delta
blues each embraced their music’s religious and spiritual
roots. Patton and House spent parts of their lives as preachers
and they shared a rough-edged vocal style that moaned from the depths
of their spirits. Johnson’s evocation of Devils and Hell Hounds
and Bad Men represented the flip side of the blues theology, a meditation
on evil that Johnson encouraged by dressing the West African trickster
up as Satan. Johnson’s driving rhythms, a feature he shared
with House, the bursts of percussive phrases, repeated the beat
of West African drum music, transferred to the guitar.(33)
The country blues of the Mississippi Delta that matured in the 1930s
combined the percussive pulse of the guitar with rough and unpolished
vocal styles, blending sacred and secular, West African and African

When the Coahoma County Study Project arrived in Clarksdale in the
summer of 1941 they found in Muddy Waters a repository of the Delta’s
rich and complex musical culture. The Fisk-Lomax group learned that
Clarksdale had been home not just to Waters, but to Patton in 1929-30,
Son House, who had preached at Lyons, and Robert Johnson, who played
at nearby Friar’s Point. A young John Hooker also lived in
Clarksdale, as did Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), Arthur
“Big Boy” Crudup, Elmore James, and Ike Turner. In Clarksdale
Muddy Waters had learned well the lessons of House, Patton, and
Johnson. He steeped himself in the blues culture of the region,
and was ready. In 1942, Lomax recorded Muddy Waters again. Of the
five songs he played, two, “You Got to Take Sick and Die One
of These Days,” and “Why Don’t You Live So God
Can Use You,” came from church hymns. “You Got to Take
Sick and Die One of These Days” was based on two sung-sermons
recorded in Chicago in 1929 and 1934, and Muddy used them melodically
and thematically for his version.(34)
More Son House and Charlie Patton than Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters’
“You Got to Take Sick and Die One of These Days” combined
his slide guitar whine with a chuch-a-chuch rhythm of the train.
Muddy explained, like a preacher, both knowing and sad, that change,
even death, was inevitable.

You got to take sick and die one of these days,
You got to take sick and die one of these days,
All the medicine you can buy and all the doctors you can hire,
You got to take sick and die one of these days.

By July 1942, America had already entered the
Second World War and the forces that made a Second Great Migration
into a movement of staggering proportions had already begun to change
the Delta. Mechanization of cotton farming would, by 1945, make
sharecropping an anachronism as the increased demand for industrial
jobs in the north became irresistible. Once again black Mississippians,
now mostly from the Delta, made their way to the cities of the north—to
Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and especially to Chicago. The second
wave of African American migrants were poorer and less educated
than the first wave, but they carried with them their rich musical
and religious culture.

From Clarksdale and Greenville and Greenwood and Indianola and Batesville
and Vicksburg, more than one hundred thousand African Americans
from the Mississippi Delta who had lived and worked on cotton plantations
but juked and shopped on a dozen black business district streets
took their experiences with them. In Chicago they would make South
Forty-seventh Street in the very heart of the black South Side,
no less familiar to them than Fourth Street in Clarksdale. And Chicago
poet Gwendolyn Brooks would people her imagined “Street in
Bronzeville” with characters familiar to the new migrants
from the Delta: the Delta of the blues man, Stagolee, John Henry,
and John the Revelator. Former sharecroppers and tractor drivers,
in the migration to Chicago the African Americans of the Delta had
decided to “Fly Away.” In leaving the South they chose
freedom over oppression. In the words of their ancestors they were
“Walkin’ Egypt” and “Rocking Daniel.”


Complete Plantation Recordings: Muddy Waters. Library of Congress
Field Recordings
, 1941-42. Stovall, MS, Aug. 1941, July 1942
and Clarksdale, MS, 1942. Chess/MCA CHD-9344.
Kubik, Africa and the Blues (Jackson: U of Mississippi
P, 1999) 9-16; 59-92.
Joyner, Down by the Riverside (Urbana and Chicago: U of
Illinois P, 1985) 200-01. See also, J. L. Dillard, Black English:
Its History and Usage in the United States
(New York: Random
House, 1972).
Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon,
1993) 89. These words appear, to be sure, in more than one blues
as well.
Blues Classics
, 1947-1956. Chess/MCA, CHD-9369.
Lewis Gates, The Signifyin(g) Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American
(New York: Oxford UP, 1988).
G. Adams, Jr., Changing Negro Life in the Delta, M.A. thesis,
Fisk University, 1947. Adams, a member of the Fisk team in the Delta,
collected much of the folklore used by Lomax in his book published
almost fifty years later.
Ferris, Black Folklore of the Mississippi Delta, Ph.D dissertation,
U of Pennsylvania, 1968, 167. See also Kyle Vernon Bennett, Junior
Kimbrough’s Juke Joint: A Story to Be Told, M.A.
thesis, U of Mississippi, 1996. Bennett continued to find “toasts”
such as the “Monkey and the Lion” that continued the
“Signifyin’ Monkey” genre.
Complete Plantation Recordings
, Interview 2.
Lee Harris, interview, Mound Bayou, MS, Oct. 2000.
B. Tooze, Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man (Chicago: ECU Press,
1997) 20-24. The details of his early life. Statistics on the Rosenwald
Schools may be found in Lewis Jones, Statistical Atlas of the
Southern States, 1900-1930
(Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina
P, 1941).
Owenby, American Dreams in Mississippi (Chapel Hill: U
of North Carolina P, 1999) 64-72.
Aiken, The Cotton Plantation South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
UP, 1999) 111.
Willie Morganfield, interview, Clarksdale, MS, Feb. 2001.
Baucom, Clarksdale—The Wonder City of the Delta,
Clarksdale Chamber of Commerce (Clarksdale, MS: Carnegie Free Library,
McMillan, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim
, (Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1989) 16.
Isaacson, who moved to Clarksdale in 1914, quoted in History
of Clarksdale and Coahoma County
, (n.d.) 109.
11. Lomax, 37. Lomax didn’t quite get the quote right. It
may be found in History of Clarksdale and Coahoma County
(Clarksdale Public Library, n.d.).
Jones, Memorandum to Alan Lomax and Charles S. Johnson, “Field
Trip to Coahoma County,” Library of Congress, Division of
Folklife, n.d.
Oscher, interview, Los Angeles, CA., Jan. 2001.
House, The Original Delta Blues, Columbia Records, 65515.
Michael Spencer, Blues and Evil (Knoxville: U of Tennessee
P, 1993) 11.
Johnson, The Complete Recordings, Columbia, (1990) C2K
64916. Contains all of Johnson’s recordings.
Levine, Black Culture, Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford
UP, 1977) 237.
discussion of Robert Johnson’s “new” technique
owes itself to the learned study by Edward Komara, The Road
to Robert Johnson
, which Mr. Komara provided in proof form
to the authors.
Patton, Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order
(Document Records, 2 vols. DOCD-5009-10).
Springer, Authentic Blues (New York: Edwin Meller Press,
1999). See also David Evans, Big Road Blues (Berkeley:
U of California P, 1982) and Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning
(New York: Cambridge UP, 1960).
David LePue, Muddy Waters Library of Congress Field Recordings:
An Analysis of His Early Repertoire
, M.A. thesis, U of Memphis,


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