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Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

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3 Covers and continuing traditions

You’ll start with the singer who wrote the song that gave the Rolling Stones their name – Muddy Waters. Muddy toured Great Britain in 1958 and was a major influence on British music in the decades that followed. Although the Rolling Stones were influenced by and directly used Muddy Waters’ music in creating their songs, many of the songs that Muddy sang were not new. ‘Catfish Blues’, the song with the lyrics that gave the Rolling Stones their name, for example, was recorded by Robert Petway in 1941. Petway in turn had learned it from earlier blues singers and it is difficult to trace how far back this song goes.

Described image
Figure 3 Muddy Waters c.1979. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images (via Britannica Image Quest)

Activity 1

Listen to these two brief extracts to compare how these two singers approached the same song.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1 Robert Petway
Audio 1 Robert Petway
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Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2 Muddy Waters
Audio 2 Muddy Waters
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Petway’s performance of ‘Catfish Blues’ uses only a straightforward, repetitive strummed guitar accompaniment. The focus of the song is entirely on Petway. It is almost as if he is telling a story with a guitar accompaniment. The strummed chords create a strong pulse but in places the guitar holds the same chord for long stretches of time, making it feel almost static. In Muddy Waters’ version too, the voice is dominant. Muddy’s gravelly, sometimes raucous voice is very expressive, telling the story through song. Although the tempo is moderate, the beat is strongly emphasised because, unlike Petway, Muddy uses piano, and drums give the repeated chords more rhythmic drive and energy.

In discussing and comparing two versions of the same song, you may have thought about calling one a cover version of the other. Covering a song is one way in which we can see the continuity of musical traditions: a specific song is set apart as having enough importance to be copied or imitated. In this case, the Rolling Stones heard the song sung by Muddy Waters who heard it sung by Robert Petway who heard it sung by someone else. Each musician has reversioned and put his own stamp on it. There are many other ways besides covers in which musicians interact with a tradition, some of which you will look at later. Before you see how tradition applies to the blues, you need to make sure you know what we mean by the blues.