On Sunday, I attended a staged reading of one of August Wilson’s plays, Seven Guitars. In it, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a guitar-player with a record out, says how he went to Chicago and saw someone playing guitar like he never heard before. “That’s Muddy Waters,” someone told him. “I’m gonna play like that,” Barton says.
Muddy Waters was one of the biggest influences on the blues sound incorporated into rock’n’roll. He influenced Chuck Berry, who wrote some of the early hits of rock’n’roll, and his playing left its mark on everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones (their name comes from one of Waters’ earliest hits “Rollin’ Stone”) to Dylan to harder rock outfits like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, Steppenwolf, Foghat and AC/DC. I first encountered him in his own right (as opposed to his effects on so many people I listened to) in the film of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, where he performed one of his trademark songs, “Mannish Boy.” Another of his trademark songs, “Hoochie Coochie Man,” written by one of his collaborators Willie Dixon, was featured throughout the movie Get Crazy.
It was only with my recent return to vinyl that I finally bought a Muddy Waters album, Folk Singer (1964, released 50 years ago next month), oft-praised by blues fans and audiophiles alike for its “live in the studio” feel and for the intimacy of the recording, which makes one feel as though in the presence of the band, as if they are in fact in the room with you. Made when he was about 50, it’s the only all-acoustic LP of Waters’ career, since he was known for his approach to electric blues, which helped to define the Chicago-style. And maybe that’s what makes the album such a landmark. Having decided to do it acoustic, Waters did it the way it might be done anywhere, on any porch, in any backroom, in any late, late, late night session.
And how about that line-up: Willie Dixon, string bass, Buddy Guy, acoustic guitar, Clifton James, drums. Sometime in the Nineties it became the thing to do an “unplugged” show, and often album, for MTV. Muddy started unplugged way back then.
The song of the day is the opening track, “My Home is in the Delta,” which, as a statement, is true of Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi) and is true of the blues as a musical form. The song articulates the position of someone not unlike the character of Barton in Seven Guitars—he went to Chicago to make it big and found out the woman he was with wasn’t the one for him, so he goes back to Pittsburgh to regroup and to woo again the girl he left behind. Waters opens the song saying “Now you know I’m livin’ in Chicago / And people I sure do hate to go.” Then reflects (as only he can), “You know I ain’t had no lovin’ / Boy you know, in God knows when.” This song is not only a homesick song, it’s a song of dire realizations. He’s gonna have to leave this town and try again elsewhere, “wondering where in the world she been.” She’s run out on him and now he’s moving on too.
The great touches in the song are that low-down moan that Waters does, as on “Ah, you know I got a funny feelin’” and those mmmmms, backed by that slippery guitar sound of his that seems to go all over the place, then narrows in on little wrenching fills. It’s the sound I associate with the Stones playing on “Love in Vain,” and this is the source of that kind of playing (ok, it actually goes back to Robert Johnson, but Waters was the man when the Stones were coming up). Hunkered down and waxing pained. Waters swallows words and draws out his notes and can do a BIG voice without hollering or shouting in the least. It sounds like it comes from the gut and the wounded spirit. And it’s so weathered, in ways that those young Brit guys could only pretend to back when they cribbed so much from him.
It is a brilliant recording too because it sounds like a “field recording”—which is how Waters was first recorded, and that suits so well the songs he offers up here. It’s kind of silly to call the album Folk Singer—which was Chess Records trying to cash in on that there young people’s music (not realizing that rock’n’roll was soon to displace folk as the favored music of the generation), but it is “folk” enough, in some ways, I suppose. In any case, it’s as unadorned and unaffected as good folk music should be.