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Between 1916 and 1970, millions of Black Southerners left the South to move to northern cities in a process known as the Great Migration. These travelers sought out better jobs and living conditions in the North, where urban industries were booming and segregation was somewhat less intense.
Among the Northern migrants, at least 500,000 headed to Chicago, and among that number, an impressive roster of musicians from the Mississippi Delta region settled in the Windy City. These Delta musicians sang traditional African-American folk music from the very rural South, known loosely as the blues. One of the later arrivals, and one of the most influential, was Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters has a remarkable life story. He was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in 1915. His parents never married and his mother died young, so he was mostly raised by his grandmother in abject poverty. Muddy grew up picking cotton on a plantation outside of Clarksdale and selling moonshine—a.k.a. illegally produced alcohol—for extra cash. He began to play the harmonica at age 7, and at 17, he purchased his first guitar for $2.50.
He and friends played music everywhere they could, mostly at fish fries and house parties. In the early 1940s, as the economy began to pick back up because of World War II, Muddy and fiddler Son Sims traveled frequently to both Memphis and St. Louis to play shows.
In 1941, the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax came to western Mississippi looking for deceased blues singer Robert Johnson (some folks believed he was still alive). In the space of his 60-year career, Lomax documented an unprecedented amount of obscure folk music and storytelling, seeking out sources in the backwoods of many southern states and around the world. During his search for Robert Johnson, Lomax was referred to the Stovall Plantation where Muddy Waters lived.
He found Muddy, who had become a whiz at playing bottleneck guitar (using a glass bottleneck as a slide to create a glowing, intense twang) and mastered the Delta blues singing style: Muddy sang "powerfully and expressively in the tightly constricted, pain-filled manner that characterized the best Delta singers" (source). Lomax recorded three of Muddy's songs, and, inspired by the attention, the singer soon decided he had to pursue a real career as a blues musician.
Like so many before him, Muddy left on the train to go north in 1943 and landed in the middle of the Windy City in a time of deep uncertainty. The country was at war, the economy was beginning to pick back up, and the city's demographics were changing rapidly.
Due in part to the great influx of African Americans from the South, Chicago was in the middle of what's now known as the Chicago Black Renaissance, an explosion of new Black cultural influences, musicians, artists, and poets during the 1930s and 1940s. After working as a truck driver and playing parties and small taverns for years, Muddy scored his first record deal on Chess Records in 1948. With the release of the double record "I Can't Be Satisfied/I Feel Like Going Home," Muddy's career was launched in earnest—and so was the entire genre of Chicago blues.
Chicago blues took the watery, folksy sadness of the Mississippi Delta music, mixed it with the smoky, speedy intensity of city life, and added amplification to intensity and twang. Many of Muddy's early releases plucked directly at the heartstrings of recent transplants to the city, with names like "Louisiana Blues" and "Long Distance Call" continually evoking the feeling that home was another place, far away. It was the perfect music for the new generation of Black urbanites with Deep South roots.
Muddy gradually assembled an all-star band, among them 6-foot-5 former boxer Willie Dixon, another Mississippi transplant who played the bass like a fiend and wrote songs even more brilliantly. When he turned out not to be the best boxer in the Chicago rings (despite having sparred against Joe Louis), Dixon "settled" for a blues career—and became one of the most important figures in Chicago blues, writing or producing many of the era's most famous songs. "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" was among the new songs composed by Dixon for Muddy's band.
Muddy Waters' own songs were sincere and heartbroken, good old-fashioned Delta blues aimed at a familiar audience. But the bar-goers of Chicago's south side wanted to be entertained and uplifted, and Dixon was a wiz at writing audience-pleasers with a comic, upbeat edge.
As Robert Palmer of Rolling Stone puts it, the songs written for Muddy Waters by Dixon were "the most macho songs in his repertoire. Muddy would never have composed anything so unsubtle. But they gave him a succession of showstoppers and an image, which were important for a bluesman trying to break out of the grind of local gigs into national prominence." (Source)
For all its nonsense and hoodoo fun, "Hoochie Coochie Man" was just that: a showstopper.
The lyrics play around with old rural traditions (seen by whites as superstitious and absurd) and the absurdity of the masculine hoochie coochie man. The song is very much an elbow-poke to the ribs, good for a laugh but also smart in its self-mockery. The inside-jokey nature of the tune worked initially because in the early 1950s, blues was still music sung by Black people for Black audiences.
All that was on the verge of changing, and fast. In 1958, Muddy traveled to England with the American Folk Blues Music Festival. The festival, and Muddy's appearance, played a part in inspiring British blues revival that influenced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among many others. At the height of civil rights strife, the blues became "cool" with young white hippies, who pushed back against their parents' racist categorization of blues as "Black music" inappropriate for their children.
In 1960, Muddy famously played at the Newport Folk Festival before a largely white audience, and his participation in the hippie folk music scene became full-fledged.
Muddy Waters slowly became a legend. Despite a shift in audience—as Black audiences were drawn more to the new soul, gospel, and electric R&B of the 1960s—and a few failed attempts at contemporizing his sound (including the 1968 release of the unpopular album Electric Mud), Waters was a successful, working musician until he died in 1983. He didn't remain pigeonholed as a "Black music" singer, and he influenced scores of blues and rock musicians, Black and white.
Of course, there were many great Black musicians from this era who didn't get their dues as white people laid claim on the newly hip styles of music originally created by and for Black communities. But Muddy's widely recognized as the founder of the Chicago blues, and even his "Hoochie Coochie Man" silliness takes us right back to the roots of the genre: the old Mississippi Delta, the watery hot days, and the resistance traditions, musical and spiritual, of generations of African Americans surviving slavery and persecution.