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Muddy Waters usually told people he was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. That's in Sharkey County, the lower quarter of the Mississippi Delta. Rolling Fork was where the train stopped, where Muddy's family would get their mail and do their shopping. Rolling Fork was on the map. But Muddy's actual birthplace is to the west and north of there, in the next county over-Issaquena, pronounced "Essaquena," the initial "e" the only thing soft in this hard land.
Berta Grant, Muddy's mother, lived next to the Cottonwood Plantation, at a bend in the road known as Jug's Corner. It was a tiny settlement in the shadow of the Mississippi's levee, a cluster of shacks and cabins undistinguished from most others in the Mississippi Delta. Among locals, however, Jug's Corner was well known: they had the fish fries on Saturday nights.
At Jug's Corner, and throughout the Delta, farmhands partied on the weekend because they'd survived another week, because the land didn't swallow them, the river didn't drink them, the boss man didn't kill them, and the mud, a half step from the dust and ashes from whence they came, did not engulf them.
Muddy's father, Ollie Morganfield, used to attend those Jug's Corner frolics. Ollie was from the Magnolia Plantation on Steele Bayou, two miles between Jug's Corner and Rolling Fork. Big boned and handsome, he could entertain with a guitar. "Ollie could play good blues," said one long-lived resident of Issaquena County. "He'd go around, folks would get him to play at a party. Dark, tall, real friendly. Full faced. Sing? He used to holler. Played old-timey blues."
"I've heard them say that a party didn't brighten up until Ollie appeared," recalled his son Robert Morganfield, Muddy's half brother. "He would sing, blow a jug, play guitar, beat a washboard." Ollie was five-feet, eight-inches tall, with brown eyes and black hair. Born October 20, 1890, he was twenty-one the summer of 1912, already the father of one child though separated from his wife.
Berta-probably Alberta or Roberta, but called Berta by everyone -lived with her younger brother Joe and their mother, Della Grant. Berta was a young girl the summer she conceived her only child. There is no record of Berta's birth or death, no one left alive who knew her. If she was counted in any census, she has eluded researchers. Like Jug's Corner, she was off the map, a cipher around which scant information is collected: Berta was born between 1893 and 1901. Her mother, Della-Muddy's grandmother, a plump, light-skinned woman-was born in 1881, so Muddy's grandmother was all of thirty-two years old when Muddy was born in 1913. (Generations came quick in Muddy's family: his own granddaughter was thirteen when she first conceived; Muddy's response was, "Young girls make strong babies.")
Ollie brightened Berta's party that summer's eve (probably the July 4 weekend), and the next spring, on April 4, 1913, Berta-at least twelve years old, but less than twenty-gave birth to a boy. (It was, despite what would later be sung, neither the seventh hour nor the seventh day; it was not the seventh month and there were not seven doctors. But like the lyrics to "Hoochie Coochie Man" suggest, Muddy did seem born for good luck, he did make pretty women jump and shout, and everybody knew that blues and sex were what Muddy Waters was all about.) Though his parents never married, the child was given his father's last name: McKinley A. Morganfield.
In years to come, after he moved to Chicago, Muddy usually told people he was born in 1915, oddly shaving only two years off his age (if his goal was to appear younger for the entertainment field). He thus became a man born in a year he wasn't born in, from a town where he wasn't born, carrying a name he wasn't born with.
The Morganfield name was relatively new to the Jug's Corner area. The Delta had been a swampy jungle of wildcats and bears when David Morganfield, Muddy's grandfather, arrived from Birmingham, Alabama at the turn of the twentieth century. His wife had died and he carried with him three sons, Ollie, Eddie, and Lewis. Birmingham must have offered very little, for the family left the city and moved to the poorest region in the nation's poorest state.
David Morganfield was a man of some heft, and he found work in Issaquena County as an ox driver. "I've heard people say he was the only man they ever saw turn a team of oxen away from water when they get hot," said Robert Morganfield. "They say up here from [the town of] Glen Allan, he was hauling some logs and those oxen was hot and saw Lake Washington and started for it, and he demanded them to go a different way. When they didn't, he was good with a whip-they tell me he could put one to the ground with the whip- and he turned them around."
Ollie, the eldest son, found work as a mule skinner, hauling logs from cleared land to a groundhog sawmill in the woods and sometimes more than forty miles to the large mill in Vicksburg. As it was cleared, the richness of the Delta's alluvial soil revealed itself. The Mississippi Delta is a large bowl that runs from Memphis south to Vicksburg, bounded by the Yazoo River to the east and the Mississippi River to the west. It is North America's mulch basin, the dumping ground for the mighty Mississippi River's deposit of fish and animal bones, decomposing trees, and topsoil from mountaintops in the north central states-the erosion of a continent. It is sixty-five hundred square miles of mellow, black, loamy soil, centuries in the making and much of it more than a hundred feet deep. A flood plain, the Delta is everywhere flat, except where the Chickasaw Indians built burial mounds-sites on which the earliest white settlers established their homes. Once the levee system was finished in the early twentieth century, landowners became rich. Vast plantations were established, many of which are still maintained by the original families, thousands and thousands of acres spread over dirt so blessed and smooth that locals refer to it as ice cream soil.
In the Mississippi Delta, cotton determined the rich and the poor, the poor and the poorest. It determined who had butter with their bread, when school was in session, and what weeks men would stay up late and get up early. Break the land, plow, plant, cultivate, pick, gin; the plant dictated how a man spent his day, his season, his life. King Cotton.
The cotton plant is a perennial, and it would grow forever-become a tree-but for the frost, the freeze, and the floods. (Before plant control through chemicals, cotton grew over six feet tall.) Mississippi cotton is planted in mid-April, after the danger of freeze and when the river waters have settled. When the plants begin to sprout, the cotton is chopped; row by cold steel row, the Johnson grass and morning glory vine that can choke the plant are hoed from around it and the plants are thinned. Come midsummer, the cotton plants flower, and the farmer knows the harvest will begin in fifty days. The next weeks are less labor intensive, the lay-by, when churches hold mass baptisms, doctors tend to the sick, and the healthy tend to the farm errands and the business of partying.
Cotton is green when it opens, and weighty. The longer it sits, the drier it becomes, and less weight equals less pay. The bolls nearest the ground open first, and field hands would pick every opened boll of cotton, then come back and pick again. Cotton sacks were seven to nine feet long and held about a hundred pounds. They strapped over the shoulder, the mouth hanging open, so in one fluid motion the boll was picked and sacked. Most adults filled two sacks a day. Some could fill five. Harvesters worked from sun to sun; they didn't need hands on a watch. Like all of them-his father, his mother (about whom so little else is known), his brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends-Muddy Waters picked cotton. On someone else's land.
The sharecropper. Also called the tenant farmer. When sharecropping was conceived during Reconstruction, the noble idea was to empower the poor laborer with the responsibility of land, for which he would pay the landowner with a portion of what he raised. But landowners had other designs, indenturing their help through crafty accounting and debt. Working as a sharecropper was like being knocked to the ground every time you started to stand up.
According to the office manager at Stovall Farms, the plantation where Muddy was raised, "The fairness of what the sharecropper got was strictly based on the moral fiber of that particular plantation owner. No two landowners did it the same way."
"What the sharecropper got" was called "the furnish." That included a cut of land (ten or so acres) and a tenant house on that land; field hands stepped out the back door and went to work, wasting no time with travel. The furnish included seed, tools, mules, and credit at the plantation store.
The sharecropper, in return, gave the landowner half of his harvest and then had his expenses deducted from what remained. Prices at the plantation store were often set arbitrarily high. Fees were assessed over which the 'cropper had no control. Most did not have the mathematical or literacy skills to challenge the accounting. Settlement came at Christmas, and Delta farmers still tell of one landowner who invited each 'cropper individually into his office, served bonded whiskey from his good glassware, then asked the farmer whether he wanted to take home a thin check or run his hands through a tub of silver dollars and carry home an armload.
A plantation was a privately owned small town, and its owners generally ignored what few laws or protection its citizenry might have been entitled to. Many farms minted their own tin scrip- "brozine"-good only at their store. Some provided regular visits from a doctor. Each had its own moonshiner. The Stovall Plantation built a juke joint for its workers-right next to the commissary, which supplied it; the farm got its cut of everything. The nearby Dockery Plantation maintained a brothel for its men. The furnish meant you wouldn't die; a good boss meant comfort, a chance at solvency, possibly progress. Families too far in debt fled a plantation in the cover of night. Those caught bought a trip to the company store, the site of plantation justice: a farmer wearing a big hat, meting out beatings.
Don't cross the boss. That was the guiding principle for the sharecropper. Stay in your place, laugh at his jokes, and you could reap the benefits-a warning of an imminent moonshine bust, a better handout from the kitchen when making a delivery at the big house. Sharecropping put the field hand on a treadmill, robbing him of his selfworth; debt was so arbitrary and constant, it didn't matter if he got ahead.
Sharecropping-getting less than half of what you've got coming to you-was good training for a life in the music business. The tenuousness of the sharecropper's life was reflected in the geography itself. Flooding often and suddenly, bringing death or crop ruin-a slower death-the Mississippi River inflicted punishment with its discharge. But it also brought life, the rich topsoil, the loam, the minerals and decay that replenished the strength that man sapped through cotton farming. Like everyone that lived so closely to and so closely off of the land, Della Grant knew these truths as well as she knew the layout of her small home. She lost her daughter, McKinley's mother, soon after he was born. No one knows what killed Berta- childbed fever, a neglected cut, or an incautious walk through the night woods. Some sort of waters rose, then receded, and she was gone. It was left to Della to take McKinley as her own and to raise him with her son Joe, three years Muddy's senior.
When her beloved grandson, now her son, took to playing in the dangerous waters that were everywhere around Jug's Corner, Della tried to stop him. (The Mississippi Delta drains south and east, making the Issaquena and Sharkey counties the marshiest.) Knowing that something could carry him off as quickly and as surely as her own Berta was carried off, Della assumed what little power she could. She put the danger and dankness and mystery and life of those shallow brumal fluids into a name the boy would carry through his life. She renamed him Muddy, as if by claiming the Mississippi's cruel and divine identity for this child she would somehow neuter its power.
(It would be years later, when he was establishing himself as a performer, that his friends would add "Water" to his name, and the final "s" would come in Chicago when McKinley's transformation was complete.)
Della struggled at the Cottonwood Plantation. "My grandmother," Muddy told the authors of Beale Black and Blue in the mid- 1970s, "she furnished for me and my uncle. She was a woman, she didn't know how to get out there and hustle as good as some men. I know I got up one Christmas morning and we didn't have nothing to eat. We didn't have a apple, we didn't have a orange, we didn't have a cake, we didn't have nothing."
Eventually Della Grant moved with her son and grandson eighty miles north to Stovall, in Coahoma County, a six-mile walk northwest of Clarksdale. Exactly when Della moved to Stovall is not known (probably when Muddy was between the ages of six months and three years), but by March 6, 1920, she was there to answer the census taker's questions. A large plantation-four thousand acres- with a kindly reputation, Stovall was home to Della's cousins, the Dan "Duke" Jones family; Ollie Morganfield's two brothers were also there. After Muddy moved, Ollie did not pursue contact, devoting himself to his next wife and their ten children. "I never did see my dad when I was living [on Stovall]," said Muddy. "I didn't see him at all."
Tenant homes throughout the Delta followed a standard boxy design. And plantation owners treated the dwellings like the dwellers: as a group, units for a prosperous whole. They painted them all at once, and all one color-usually green or brown, trimmed in white. Most were two big rooms. Della's cabin (Route 1, Box 84) had begun as a single room built from hand-hewn cypress planks by a hunter before the Civil War. By the time she occupied it, a kitchen and two more small rooms had been added. Tenant houses had neither running water nor electricity. Mattresses were ticks-fabric stuffed with cotton bolls and cotton shuck that had to be fluffed before sleeping and smoothed after waking. Water was hand pumped, and pumps had to be primed, which took an eternity on cold mornings; light came from kerosene ("coal oil") lamps. Women sometimes mopped the wooden floors with lye and hot water to make them white.
Excerpted from Can't Be Satisfied by Robert Gordon Copyright ©2002 by Robert Gordon. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Mannish Boy / 1913-1925||3|
|2||Man, I Can Sing / 1926-1940||19|
|3||August 31, 1941 / 1941||35|
|4||Country Blues / 1941-1943||53|
|5||City Blues / 1943-1946||67|
|6||Rollin' and Tumblin' / 1947-1950||85|
|7||All-Stars / 1951-1952||103|
|8||Hoochie Coochie Man / 1953-1955||121|
|9||The Blues Had a Baby / 1955-1958||145|
|10||Screaming Guitar and Howling Piano / 1958-1959||157|
|11||My Dog Can Bark / 1960-1967||167|
|12||Rollin' Stone / 1967-1969||197|
|13||Eyes on the Prize / 1970-1975||219|
|14||Hard Again / 1976-1983||249|
|15||This Dirt Has Meaning / 1983 and After||271|
|Appendix A||Itinerary of the 1941 and 1942 Fisk--Library of Congress Coahoma County Study||285|
|Appendix B||Muddy's Delta Record Collection and Repertoire||289|
|Appendix C||How to Buy Muddy Waters and Other Related Recordings||291|
Posted July 30, 2004