By James “Skyy Dobro” Walker
“Name McKinley Morganfield, nickname Muddy Water, Stovall’s famous guitar picker,” Muddy clearly said in his first ever recording session, August 1941. McKinley “Muddy Water” Morganfield, of course, is the most famous Blues musician ever, the father of modern Chicago Blues, and the only household Blues name – along with B.B. King. Note that “Water” is singular, and the beauty here is that one can hear him say it for himself / herself.
Wikipedia reports: “In the summer of 1941, Alan Lomax went to Stovall Plantation, Mississippi [looking for Robert johnson – by then deceased], on behalf of the Library of Congress, to record various Country Blues musicians [including Morganfield]. Lomax came back in July 1942 to record Muddy again. Both sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall’s Plantation on the Testament label. The complete recordings were re-issued on CD as Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings. The historic 1941-42 Library of Congress field recordings by Chess Records in 1993, and re-mastered in 1997.”
I own the 1993 CD release, and the opening quote in this article is heard in the sixth track, “Interview #3 – previously unissued.” Used copies of this CD with its landmark recordings can be found on Amazon.com for as little as $3.25, plus shipping and handling. It is a complete knockout to hear not only his 1941 voice but also the first song he ever recorded!
Morganfield’s grandmother Della, who raised him after his mother Berta was swept away by flood waters, nicknamed him “Muddy.” According to author Robert Gordon in 2002’s book Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, Della “renamed him Muddy…” when McKinley “took to playing in the dangerous waters that were everywhere around Jug’s Corner….”
Muddy started playing music on harmonica, but by age 17 he switched to guitar and played at house parties. His style was influenced by earlier recording artists Son House and Robert Johnson. At some point, once he was becoming established in the community as a good musician, his friends added the name “Water” to his nickname and performing name, and as one can hear, he called himself “Muddy Water.”
So, how and when did the “s” get added to Water? The surprising answer is found in a book titled, Lost Delta Found – Rediscovering the Fisk University – Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 by John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams, Jr. The editors are Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov. The editors first point out further proof of the singular “Water” in a footnote on page 51. It’s in the form of handwriting by Work on a 1943 photograph of Muddy and his mentor Son Sims, “The photo of Muddy and Son Sims is labeled in John Work’s hand, ‘Muddy Water.’” The photograph is shown with labeling on page 119.
It seems a clerical error by Alan Lomax himself added the “s” to “Water.” Again quoting from the page 51 footnote: “Lomax refers to Morganfield as ‘Muddy Waters’ (and repeatedly misspells ‘Sims’ as ‘Simms’). The first published misidentification occurs in Lomax’s liner notes that accompany the 1942 Library of Congress album Afro-American Blues and Game Songs.”
By the time Muddy was in Chicago, it seems he went with the flow and accepted his third nickname to be the euphonious appellation by which he is known to recorded history, “Muddy Waters.”