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Muddy Waters & Martin Luther King's Blues

Martin Luther King & Muddy Waters' journeys from the Mississippi Delta intersected in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in May, 1968.

Muddy Waters and his band had driven all night from Chicago to D.C. to play for the Poor People's March on Washington. He was invited by the entertainment coordinator, Alan Lomax -- the folklorist who first recorded him on the plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi decades before.

That first recording for the Library of Congress in 1941 was made at the shack where Muddy lived and worked on the Stovall Plantation. He was one of many sharecroppers making 22 1/2 cents per hour under hard conditions. By summer 1943, Muddy asked for a raise to $.25/hr. He later said the notoriously mean overseer Rhett Ellis "says I'm the only man ever ask him for a raise, and if I don't want to work for what I'm working for, get down off his tractor." Muddy got down off that tractor, walked away, and boarded the train to Chicago two days later.

The next week, his job at a paper factory paid "forty-something bucks or fifty-something bucks a week...I said, 'Goodgodamighty, look at the money I got.' I have picked that cotton all the year, chop cotton all year, and I didn't draw a hundred dollars."

Over two decades later, the Delta that Muddy fled was still rife with the untenable wages and substandard housing that inspired the multiracial Poor People's Campaign following Dr. King's and Robert F. Kennedy's tours here. When Dr. King visited Marks, Mississippi, 20min east of Clarksdale, in March 1968 and personally witnessed the poverty here, he cried. When he was assassinated up the road in Memphis in April 1968, he was supporting the sanitation workers' strike. Economic justice, he believed, was the next fight for civil rights.

Dr. King's casket was pulled by two working mules. Just weeks after he was buried, the Mule Train left Marks for Washington, D.C. It came to rest at Resurrection City, where people pressing Congress for economic justice had set up a city of plywood, tented shacks where over 3,000 people lived on the National Mall while campaigning.

Some said the shacks and living conditions in the tent city were better than the ones they'd left at home.

One of the songs Muddy played for the crowd that day in May, 1968 was the same he'd played for Alan Lomax's first recording that summer in 1941:

Well, if I feel tomorrow Like I feel today, I'm gonna pack my suitcase And make my getaway. I be's troubled, I'm all worried in mind, And I never be satisfied, And I just can't keep from cryin.

In his autobiography, Lomax later wrote those blues were heard a quarter-mile away. "This was America's newest orchestra," he wrote, "far more African than any jazz band -- an orchestra built around singing, highly rhythmic yet subtly supporting and amplifying the vocal part, going back through Son House to the one-stringed diddley bow, to the very roots of African-American music in Mississippi.

The audience, folks from the ghettos of the Midwest and the Deep South, knew this sound. It was theirs. They had danced it into being on a thousand thousand nights in barrooms and at house parties. Now the old Delta music, rechristened rhythm and blues, was on stage in the nation's capital. A roar of applause swept across the Reflecting Pool into Lincoln's marble house. The politicians might not be listening, but soon the whole world would be dancing to this beat and singing the blues."

Lomax had been asked to organize "culturally relevant entertainment" that day. Over 50 years later, the shack where they first made the "Complete Plantation Recordings" now sits in the Delta Blues Museum -- and both Dr. King's work and Muddy Waters' blues feel relevant as ever.

Photo (c) Washington Post

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