Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield sometime around 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Raised by his grandmother, Della Grant in Clarksdale after his mother died when he was three, he lived in a shack on Stovall Plantation, working as a farm laborer from when he was a boy. Life was harsh, brutal even, with poverty and deprivation part of daily life. Muddy Water’s website notes that blues artists like Muddy “gave vent to…terror, frustration, rage and passionate humanity in a music that was taut with dark, brooding force and spellbinding intensity that was jagged, harsh, raw as an open wound and profoundly, inexorably, moving.”
Muddy began playing harmonica, then guitar and by 17, he was playing at parties, seeking to emulate his heroes, Son House and Robert Johnson. Within ten years he had moved to Chicago, where he became a full-time professional musician, and in due course a huge success and the acknowledged father of Chicago blues.
With all his success, however, and ability to broaden his musical horizon to include new musical sounds and approaches, not least the amplified electric guitar, Muddy’s early years in the Delta clearly remained formative – take his 1959 Single Version of Take the Bitter With The Sweet, where he remembers the struggles and difficulties of growing up in poverty. He sings about the pain of not having any family:
Well I don’t have no mother, father, brother, sister, boy, I ain’t never seen
Well you know sometime I feel so lonesome
Well yes I feel just like I wanna scream..
He remembers the times when “There’ve been nights I’ve laid down, And I didn’t have no food to eat,” and the days he walked around and “I didn’t have no shoes on my feet.”
The song, interestingly concludes with the line “Oh Lord, boy I gotta take the bitter with the sweet,” which is a surprisingly upbeat and positive take on the woes that he’s just been singing about.
Even those of us who are fortunate enough not to live in poverty and don’t have to worry about where we’re going to sleep tonight know that life has a way of throwing some bitter pills at us from time to time. I’m just recovering from a lengthy period of ill health, and many of us know about job loss, bereavement, financial worries, family problems. None of us is immune from the trouble that life brings no matter who we are, no matter how wealthy we are or how strong and fit we are.
We hear a lot about life’s woes in Israel’s blues songbook, the Psalms – we regularly read about “the day of trouble,” “the time of trouble,” about “afflictions” and a whole host of difficulties. What is remarkable, though, is the confidence that the writers of the Psalms had that God would be with them in the day of trouble – “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue them.” (Ps. 91.15). Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann commenting on these Psalms says that “The songs are not about the “natural” outcome of trouble, but about the decisive transformation made possible by this God who causes new life where none seems possible.” Psalms like Psalms 30, 34, 40, 138 all tell stories of going into trouble and coming out the other side.
Like these Psalms which look for a better day beyond the day of trouble, many blues songs also hit this note of hope for better things. For sure there’s no way we can avoid the bitter – we gotta take it along with the sweet – but the question for all of us is: in the day of trouble, who you gonna turn to? Who are you gonna hope in? The Psalms give us a good steer here – “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Maybe we’ll leave the last word on this to Eric Bibb…