Extract: “From Muddy Waters to The Rolling Stones: Blues and Cultural Appropriation”

Muddy Keith


It was 5 August 1976 and Eric Clapton was drunk, angry and on stage at the Birmingham Odeon. ‘Enoch was right,’ he told the audience, ‘I think we should send them all back.’ Britain was, he complained, in danger of becoming ‘a black colony’ and a vote for controversial Tory politician Enoch Powell whom he described as a prophet was needed to ‘keep Britain white’. Although the irony was possibly lost on Clapton, the Odeon in Birmingham is on New Street, minutes from the Midland Hotel where eight years earlier Powell had made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. But if the coincidence was curious, the hypocrisy was breathtaking: Clapton’s career was based on appropriating black music, and he had recently had a hit with Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’.



The smile of an R&B artist circa 1949 was the smile of someone expecting to be beaten up at any momentPhilip Norman.


According to Sandra Tooze’s biography, Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield on April 4th, 1913 in Issaquena County, Mississippi. At the age of three his mother moved the McKinley family to Stovall’s plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Waters lived until he was 28. 

Waters began his musical career on the harmonica, and at age seventeen he was playing guitar at parties and juke joints in Clarksdale, imitating the styles of two highly influential senior bluesmen, Son House and Robert Johnson.

The outset of his recording career began when he was approached by socio-musicologist Alan Lomax, with subsequent recording sessions taking place on two occasions at Stovall’s, in 1940 and 1941. In 1943 he joined the migration to Chicago, where he became a professional musician. In 1946 he cut his first recordings for a small independent record label, Aristocrat, run by brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, and in the year following, backed only by bassist Big Crawford, he recorded ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ and ‘Feel Like Going Home’, two country blues songs written during his years at Stovall’s. Leonard Chess pressed 3000 copies on 78rpm shellac discs, almost all of which sold out in record stores in Chicago within 24 hours of their release.

In 1950, Aristocrat changed its name to Chess Records, and Waters’ first release for the new label, ‘Rollin’ Stone’, an up-date of a 1941 Robert Petway hit, ‘Catfish Blues’, sold 80,000 copies in Chicago, Detroit, St Louis and Memphis. The song was inspirational in many ways for both emerging and established rock acts in the 1960s: a group of five young blues aficionados from Kent in England adapted its title to form the name of their R&B and blues-based rock band – the Rolling Stones – 12 years after the song’s release; Bob Dylan, newly reinvented as an electric blues rocker following his infamous Newport Folk Festival appearance in 1965, wrote and recorded ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; and in 1967 Jimi Hendrix recorded his own take on the original ‘Catfish Blues’. According to the album notes for the posthumous Jimi Hendrix CD Blues, released by Polydor in 1994,

A recorded evolution of Catfish Blues’ ‘floating verses’ and riffs traces the course of Delta performers: ‘Rollin and Tumblin Blues’ by Hambone Willie Newburn (1929), ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day’ by Robert Johnson (1936), ‘Catfish Blues’ by Robert Petway (1940), Deep Sea Blues by Tommy McLennan (1942), ‘Rolling Stone’ by Muddy Waters (1950), ‘Still a Fool’ by Muddy Waters (1951) and ‘Oh Yeah’ by Bo Diddley (1958).

Waters developed, over the next five years, his highly influential trademark sound: ‘The big drop afterbeat on the drum formed the foundation of my blues…nothing fancy, just a straight, heavy beat with it…I took the old time music and brought it up to date’.

In 1954 he recorded ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ with a band that comprised Jimmy Rogers (second guitar), Amos ‘Junior’ Wells (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), bassist, song-writer and arranger Willie Dixon, and drummer Fred Below. A winning formula had been struck, and Waters went on to define, almost single-handedly, the distinctive electric Chicago blues of the post-war period, with Howlin’ Wolf his only serious rival.

In 1958 he visited England and shocked audiences with the sonic force of his performance. Although becoming a key influence on the following generation of blues-based rock bands in Britain during the 1960s, his album sales for Chess entered a steady decline. In 1977 he was signed to Blue Sky records on the recommendation of white Texan blues-rocker Johnny Winter, and enjoyed a brief artistic and commercial renaissance, his reputation as one of the key musical innovators of the 20th century restored by the devotion of his new-found, predominantly white audience. He died on 30th April 1983.

In his book Blues – The British Connection  Bob Brunning – one-time bass player with Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac – outlines the circumstances in 1962 under which the members of the Rolling Stones were drawn together through their mutual fascination with blues. The earliest incarnation of the group comprised Mike Jagger (as he was then known), Dick Taylor (later of the Pretty Things), Keith Richards and Brian Jones. All were students at Sidcup Art College, except Jagger, who was then studying at the London School of Economics.

With one exception, the five members of the Rolling Stones were born into the sleepy suburban torpor of post-war Britain’s Home Counties. Michael ‘Mick’ Jagger was born in Dartford, Kent on July 26th 1943; Keith Richards was also born in Dartford, on December 18th 1943; William George Perks (Bill Wyman) was born in Lewisham, South London, on 24th October, 1936; Charles Robert ‘Charlie’ Watts was born in University Hospital, London, on 2nd June, 1941, and was raised in the London borough of Islington; Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 28th February, 1942, and moved to London in 1961, meeting and joining the other members of the Rolling Stones in 1962.

The Stones began their career as blues, R&B and soul purists – their first three UK albums contain covers of material by, among others, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, Willie Dixon, James Reed, Rufus Thomas, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye.

Yet, as Ian McDonald notes in his book The People’s Music, the Stones were to end up operating to an entirely different agenda:

Without the greyly restrained and deferential culture of the fifties…the Stones would have had no context for their outrageous story to be played out against…They needed the stuffiness, pomposity, snobbery and social inertia as the theatre in which they acted out their drama.

Under the tutelage of their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who wrested control of the group from Giorgio Gomelsky, they became, between 1965 and 1969, the anti-Beatles. While the Beatles’ early clean-cut image earned them trans-generational appeal, the Stones were strictly for the rebellious at heart, the antithesis of bourgeois English respectability. Their run of self-penned hit singles between 1965-69 included the Muddy Waters-inspired ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, ‘Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows’, ‘Paint It, Black’ (whose title’s initial comma was later removed, and then reinstated), ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’. These songs’ subject matter included the inanity of American radio advertising, psychiatric disorders, teenage pregnancy, existential nihilism, one-night stands, recovering from the use of LSD, and bar-room ‘dancing girls’.

In 1967 the British establishment hit back at the Stones. There were drug arrests, suspended jail sentences, editorial leaders in the Times – the rock ‘n’ roll circus had come to town and was packing in eager audiences.

In 1968, following a brief experimentation with LSD and psychedelia on Their Satanic Majesties’ Request,  they made a return to blues and R&B for Beggar’s Banquet, covering ‘Prodigal Son’ by Reverend Robert Wilkins.  By the mid-70s they were largely a spent creative force, and by the turn of the millennium they had become a stand-alone multi-million dollar global entertainment industry, recycling their past in concert as a travelling greatest hits machine, releasing desultory albums that no-one beyond their keenest fans wanted to hear, yet becoming revered as the sexagenarian surviving heroes of the erstwhile counter-cultural ‘revolution’, and a much-loved British institution.

It all seems a far cry from ‘Honey Bee’ by Muddy Waters.



Elsewhere Brunning describes Eric Clapton’s initiation as a blues purist:

He was soon to come across the work of an outstanding musician who was to inspire him for the rest of his life – Robert Johnson, the legendary Delta singer/guitarist whose tragically short lifespan was nevertheless long enough to enable Johnson to produce some crudely recorded but quite astonishing and perennially influential performances.’

Clapton would join the Yardbirds in 1963, whom he would then leave for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1964, and in 1966 form Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Each of these musicians shared a love of African American folk music – blues.

Unlike the Beatles, whose eclectic influences comprised other forms of black American music than blues, including liberal doses of 1950s rhythm and blues (especially Chuck Berry and Little Richard), rockabilly (especially Elvis, Carl Perkins and The Everley Brothers)…and the songs and performing style associated with Motown, virtually all of the most influential British London ‘beat’ groups of the 1960s took electric blues as their initial inspiration. In general principle those who were able to write original material that built upon the standard 12-bar format of classic rural and urban blues, by incorporating this with the harmonic structures of the European classical tradition, following the example of the Beatles, went on to form the pop bands that created the most enduring popular music of the 1960s. Of these, arguably the most notable were the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who, all of whom were able to write songs whose originality and longevity could be compared to those of the Beatles. Those British groups who could not quite match such innovative power, and whose longevity suffered as a result – the Animals, the Small Faces, the Pretty Things and Manfred Mann – either repeatedly revised their format or floundered as the 60s drew to a close.

Perhaps the most celebrated example of this compositional process is ‘Yesterday’ – an acoustic guitar ballad accompanied by a string quartet. Other songs demonstrating such harmonic sophistication, and eclecticism in execution, included ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘As Time Goes By’ (the Rolling Stones), ‘Dead End Street’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Days’ (the Kinks), and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ (Procol Harum), plus material written by the Gibb brothers song-writing partnership, and performed as the Bee Gees: ‘I Can’t See Nobody’ and ‘To Love Somebody’ in particular. Few of the other groups mentioned wrote songs that would cross over so successfully into other demographics – material that could be ‘covered’ by artists working in diverse areas in the manner of the Tin Pan Alley pop ‘standards’: ‘Yesterday’ is reputedly the most-covered song in pop music, having been recorded by over 3,000 artists, including Daffy Duck and Placido Domingo (though not together). Of those mentioned above, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is the second most successful in this regard, having been recorded by over 1000 artists.

In The Beatles, Popular Music and Society, Jon Fitzgerald outlines three of these groups’ scale usage:

The songs by Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards and (Ray)Davies employ a very similar profile of scale usage. These writers clearly favour complete major scales over major pentatonic and hexatonics, and they use blues inflections and/or mixolydian scales in approximately one in three songs. Jagger-Richards are more inclined towards melodies which incorporate the flattened seventh but not the flattened third. On the other hand Davies favours both the flattened seventh and third scale degrees; more than half his songs involve either mixolydian, minor pentatonic or blues scales, and only one in three features complete major scales.


Keith Rodway

An extract from an MA thesis on social anthropology, a look at blues, white rock bands and cultural appropriation by Keith Rodway.



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6 Responses to Extract: “From Muddy Waters to The Rolling Stones: Blues and Cultural Appropriation”

    1. great piece. Didn’t Muddy himself endorse the Rolling Stones’ appropriation of the blues? Obviously it is a weird slight of racist hand that the white imitators should make all the money off a format created by blacks many of whom died in relative poverty but Picasso appropriated black art and made millions off it but he also like the stones brought global attention to african art and african styles which undoubtedly helped countless african artists over the course of the 20th century and beyond? i think anyone should appropriate what ever inspires them… should the originators of new and popular forms be foregrounded by big record companies and ‘pushed’ as hard as their diluted imitators? yes! but will they be? no. but they will re-emerge in films by the Cohen brothers!

      Comment by Roddy on 14 August, 2015 at 9:29 am
    2. Thanks Roddy. Yes, it’s true that Muddy did endorse the Stones’ popularisation of his music, but others were not so lucky. On the second album by Led Zeppelin, the band failed to credit Willy Dixon as songwriter – or inspiration at least – for Whole Lotta Love, based on Dixon’s song You Need Love, written for Muddy Waters in 1962; and The Lemon Song, from the same album, rips off Howling Wolf’s Killing Floor. First pressings credited the song to Led Zeppelin, a subsequent pressing changed the title to Killing Floor and recited it correctly to Chester Burnett, Wolf’s birth name, and future pressings would rename the song the Lemon Song, credit to Burnett. Willie Dixon received an out-of-court settlement in 1987 for You Need Love.
      When the Stones visited Chess Studios in 1964 to record there, they found a black man up a ladder painting the studio ceiling. The initial title to their subsequent 1965 song was written with a comma: Paint It, Black. Anecdotally, the man up the ladder was Muddy Waters, whose stock had taken a dip, and Leonard Chess was giving him work about the place to supplement his income. Paint It, Black later became Paint It Black, changing the valence of the title quite considerably. Tricky things, commas.
      I agree that cultural appropriation is both natural and inevitable – there’s a common stock of ideas in all areas of the arts that is continually shared and adapted – but when you’ve got fabulously wealthy white musicians plundering the original blues’ writers songbooks and failing to pay dues, it’s just plain disrespectful.

      Comment by Keith Rodway on 14 August, 2015 at 12:33 pm
    3. I don’t think you can call the Stones disrespectful to the old blues guys. They might be the only people the Stones ARE respectful toward. They were (and are) quite open about their admiration for the black players and actually did a lot to promote their careers.

      Comment by Michael Casey on 2 December, 2016 at 3:39 pm
    4. The same argument could be applied in more recent times to the explosion on Western ears of World Music, going back to Paul Simon’s Graceland and many other examples. Are the World Music artists being exploited as secondary to the more famous white artists who are appropriating their music, or are they being given exposure to a wider audience they would never have had otherwise? Is Peter Gabriel exploiting world music artists, or giving them a highly respectful platform? I’d like to think the latter, though there is no comparison whatsoever in the fortunes of the purveyors of blues, soul and world music to those who capitalise on it. It could be said the current music scene is maybe addressing all that with Kanye West and JayZ, Rihanna, elements of hip hop and r n b, etc as the most opulent examples of material success in the music world today. Or is it that they just sold out their black brothers and sisters too, just like the white man did?

      Comment by Claire on 14 August, 2015 at 6:35 pm
    5. Mick Jagger and his karoke back up have been fleecing black musicians for decades . They stole their riffs from Chuck Berry , Muddy Waters gave them their name and that caricatured minstrel style chicken dance is a grotesque parody of a white man aping black dance moves straight from James Brown . Like all good con artists and salesmen Jagger repackaged the blues and sold them to a largely white ignorant ‘liberal ‘ audience . Just because he lurves black American music doesn’t justify validate or legitimise his ‘theft’. And contrary to the belief that the white rock messiah is a caring sharing kind of guy just look how he reacted with the Verve I agree with his biographer Stanely Booth Jagger was pilfering the works of ‘old black men too poor to put glass in their windows,’ Jagger understands the money and the exploitation of commercialising black music . Yes he introduced lots of supremely gifted black blues artists to the world but as he has made millions from their back catalogues one could argue that’s the least he could do ! Jagger lacks the one thing they all share honesty in the raw uncut emotional depth of their sound . He can’t get no satisfaction because he can’t fake poverty, abuse, explouitation , bad luck, drug addiction to the point of near death , and centuries of inequality . In Jaggers ‘ own words : ‘These legendary characters wouldn’t mean a light commerically if groups weren’t going around Britian doing their numbers’, and Jagger knows how to number crunch , as a middle class white band that started doing cover versions he’s been cashin in on it ever since . Muddy Waters wasn’t hounured by the Queen but without him there would be no Jagger or maybe there might be a reggae type Jagger ! The chicken strut, the big lips symbol, the questionable sterotypical lyrics of some of his songs ” Some Girls,” Jagger claims “Black girls just want to get fucked all night.” And when going in search for ‘soul food,’ in the USA ensured they took an armed black body guard and Annie Liebowitz for the prefect photo op all driving a limo in a black ghetto and feeling ‘protected’, from the brothers playing pool . Black musicians like other creatives of colour : writers , poets , dancers, are never equally compensated when compared to their white counterparts or accorded due credit unless bought to the world’s attention by their fawning white saviours. Token wonders in a ‘white’ system . The Jay Z, Beyonce , K West circus is what it is but at least Beyonce and Ri Ri offer strong vocal perfomances compared to Katy Perry and Taylor Swift . The black brothers and sisters aren’t selling out so much as cashing in like Jagger and Clapton have been doing and if anyone should turn a coin shouldn’t it be them rather than anyone else ? Jagger has said that he wants to perform like his blues idols right into his 80s and 90s but he fails to understand they are forced to keep slaving on because they have no choice they need to eat . No matter what he does Jagger will always be a sorry cardboard cut out of a bluesman because he hasn’t lived enough suffered enough or bled enough to make his voice carry the legacy of the white blues through . And faking it just won’t do .

      Comment by Black Betty on 9 December, 2016 at 10:52 am
    6. And it was rather apt I thought that Trump continued to play The Stones signature tune everytime he came on stage . Ironic too

      Comment by Black Betty on 9 December, 2016 at 11:02 am

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