It's hard to feel the blues in a town like Washington. There's not enough grime for one thing. And the assembly lines are the wrong kind. Detroit, on the other hand, bleeds the blues. You can sit in Honest John's Marine Bar off East Jefferson Street (it's across from a belching tire plant), stoke the juke with quarters and drink half-flat Stroh's. It's not much fun, but it's got the blues. Now that I don't have to live there anymore, I can miss Detroit fondly.

Muddy Waters, who is about the most famous bluesman alive, knows about such feelings. Without much prompting he'll glow of those first years in Mississippi when he used to pay fish fries for 50 cents, a sandwich, and a half-pint of moonshine. He wasn't riding his electric guitar then (which he refers to as "my horse"), but a mouth harp, known to urban folk as a harmonica.

"Damn, if I don't miss some of those times back then," he says, a slanchwise gin cocked at the corner of his mouth. "I'd blow sad on that little harp all night long.Sometimes we'd have the fish fries right in folks' houses.You'd take down the bed and roll up the rug. Once we had so many people, we busted right through the floorboards."

The memory makes him howl; he slaps at his leg.

You can also get him to remember his early years in the North, in the '40s, when the hootchy-kootchy man was working in a Chicago paper factory and playing clubs seven nights a week on the west and south sides. Silvio's at Lake and Kedsie. The 708. The Zanzibar. The Dew-Drop Lounge. Smitty's Corner near Cominsky Park (where a decade or so later he met his current drummer. Willie "Big Eyes" Smith). Those places are all gone now, he says.

"Yeah, it's just a lot of reminiscin'. You drive by and look. Maybe there's a building there, maybe only a parking lot." There are some things in life you can't beat.

Muddy Waters wouldn't go back - not on a bet. He just likes recounting it for writers. Th central fact about blues and bluesmen anywhere is this: Getting out. Escaping. Finding freedom from your pain. The music itself, of course, is the first escape. Then, if it's really good, if the right combination of luck and circumstance bumps along, a bluesman escape all the way - to Vegas, say, where B. B. King is now said to hang out, or maybe to sunny California, where John Lee Hooker fled years ago. But largely that is a broken dream. For every Muddy Waters who made it big, there are a hundered One-String Sams and Shakin' Jakes in gabardine suits still singing in cheap Detroit bars. That's the blues.

Muddy Waters, nee McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Miss., is 62 years old now. He has great-grandkids, a chronically bad back, a house in the Chicago suburbs. "You should see my back yard in the summer-time," he says in the somnolent Delta accents he's never shaken. "You'd think I was runnin' a public pool for the neighborhood." His wife of 30-odd years, Geneva, has passed, he says, but he's lit another match.

"She's 24. I call her my little Sunshine. She's from Florida."

The man who as much as anyone took the blues of the rural South and turned them into something electric and urban is seated in a dressing room at the Cellar Door. He's in a snappy windowpane suit, a silken polyester shirt, shiny black shoes. Surrounding him are painted ladies, managers, record promoters, black deejays, reporters. They all want a piece.

He almost didn't get here, he says, his back was hurting him. "I just bent over to get somethin' out of the refrigerator couple weeks ago. Bang. I could feel this awful hurtin' pain. It hung me up bad." His back has never been right, he says, since a head-on car collision south of Champaign one night in 1969. He broke a leg, fractured ribs, suffered a paralysis in his playing hand.

"They had to lift me out of the car. I was in the hospital for three months. I'm an awful lucky man, when you get to it. I thought I'd never play again."

He has done a lot of playing since then, as a matter of fact. He has won a hatful of Grammy nominations (and at least three Grammy awards), entry to Ebony magazine's Black Music Hall of Fame, a rolling Stone 1977 Critics' Award. Sales of "Hard Again," an LP released last year, have topped 100,000 - a nearly unheard of figure in blues - and his lastest album, "I'm Ready," is getting the big push from Epic, his distributor. Last year's album is up for Grammy on Feb. 22.

If he never hit another lick, he would be lastingly known. Tunes like "Got My Mojo Working," "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had," "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" have worked their way into pop music mythology. In 1954 he wrote "Rollin' Stone" (also known as "Catfish Blues"), a song that not only inspired Dylan's rock anthem, "Like a Rolling Stone," but also gave names to a then-obscure quintet of English Rockers, and, a few years later, an irreverent ; consumer-cum-cultural guide to the billion-dollar rock industry. Some even say Jimi Hendrix taught himself to play guitar from listening to Muddy Waters.

He is asked how he feels about all this, about all those who catapulted to millions of his inspiration. "I'm not bitter a bit, if that's what you're gettin' at," he says, this having been covered in hundreds of interviews earlier. "I didn't make it - not on those terms anyway. The Stones cut my 'Can't Be Satisfied' and 'Mannish Boy.' So fine. Let 'em go. That's what I say."

Someone wants to know why more young urban blacks don't listen to blues. "It's the deejays' fault," he says immediately. "Black kids aren't just exposed to this music anymore. If a kid hears something, he goes with it, right? Well, all he's hearin' now is rock.

"Listen, I would love to see my people come. But I'll play to the other side of the street, too. I used to have big crowds of blacks - now I got young white audiences mostly. My people have left me. I haven't left them."

The crowd at the Cellar Door opening night was almost exclusively white. (He said that was true as well of his one-night gig in Charlottesville Tuesday.) They kicked and stomped and stoop on their feet to applaud him. He played for 50 minutes, never quite with the hard, anguished energy of his prime, but good enough all the same. In truth, the old man's backup was almost better than he was, especially "Pinetop" Perkins (in derby hat and cranberry pants) on boogie-woogie piano, and Willie Smith on the drums.

"I think I'll just keep playing till I can't stand up no more," he said afterward. "And until they stop payin' to see me." Then he popped some champagne and bussed a very sexy lady on the lips. It was hard to tell who enjoyed it more.