The Blues Incarnate
Muddy Waters‘s sound is the sound of the blues. Even more than Chuck Berry is the prototypical rock artist, Waters is the prototypical blues artist. Just like one can’t truly be a rock fan without liking Chuck Berry, it would be even more impossible to be a blues fan who, personal tastes aside, doesn’t at least like Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters, after all, has a larger body of memorable work created over a longer time in a wider stylistic range. Chuck Berry’s canon consists mostly of classic singles from his first decade of recording and—to the unfamiliar, disinterested listener—Berry’s songs can all sound kind of the same (Just like those same listeners could accuse Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, etc. of recording their respective one songs over and over; nothing wrong with that).
But Waters’s sound encompasses both stereotypical blues sounds, from the kind played by Mississippi sharecroppers on acoustic guitars to the kind played in smoky clubs in Chicago. Even people who don’t listen to the blues are familiar with the images, if not sounds, of such stereotypes. And no other blues artist was able to so drastically and successfully alter his sound from early Delta acoustic to Chicago electric.
Take, for instance, “Country Blues”, the first track on this compilation. The resemblance to Son House and Robert Johnson is unmistakable. Even whole lyrical lines are drawn nearly verbatim from Johnson’s “Walking Blues”, which in turn is drawn from House’s “Death Letter Blues”. Moreover, the strength of Waters’s performance merits such comparisons. Waters especially sounds like Johnson, though with a slower, deeper voice made fuller by better recording equipment. Somewhat surprisingly for the future hoochie coochie man, the emotion here is more grounded and coolly reflective than either House or Johnson. Not as ethereal, perhaps, but nearly as powerful. And “Death Letter Blues” and “Walking Blues” were two of the very best from their respective artists.
Then, for comparison, skip ahead to the last song, “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll”. The guitar is electrified and loud, the drums pound along to the strutting bassline, and Waters bellows his lyrics. Yet, if the contrast is startling, it’s ultimately just as startling a testament to Waters’s talent and range that the 14 songs in-between should play so smoothly.
Part of Waters’s greatness rests on his prowess as a bandleader, with his group being the early stomping grounds for a remarkable roster of great names from Otis Spann to Buddy Guy to Little Walter, among many others. In addition to his own musical talents, Waters could recognize, guide, and develop talent. Even as he himself made the transition from the Delta to Chicago, Waters was fostering new talent that would inspire a still-younger generation of artists. The order of the songs on this album, despite the contrast between the first and last songs, make so much sense because Waters’s band was one of the prime movers—arguably the prime mover—in creating the guidelines of the transition. There is thus no Spinal Tap moment where “Cups and Cakes” are instantly forgotten so that the band may “(Listen to the) Flower People”.
Another part of Waters’s greatness is based on the sheer volume of his great songs. Without slighting Waters’s immense talents, part of this is because, compared to his greatest Chess peers, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, Waters began recording the earliest and outlived them both to record memorable later albums with Johnny Winters. By virtue of his greater stylistic range over a greater range of time and his being a nurturer of young talent, Waters is the most historically important of the three. Yet, if one judges only by their respective best songs or a top album or two, it becomes much harder to argue for Waters being the greatest of the three.
But if this one disc doesn’t prove it, this album really is a better purchase than comparable single disc collections of either Williamson or Wolf. Because of the aforementioned volume of Waters’s good stuff, this album provides a mesmerising overview while leaving the door open for easily getting more Muddy Waters music without too much repetition. Sure, you could buy the two disc Anthology, but you could also get this and augment your collection with the Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues single disc with only a handful of repeats. Or you could get his complete collection of early plantation recordings, only one of which is represented here. Or check out more of his Blue Sky work with Johnny Winters, likewise only excerpted here once. Given so much good music from Waters, this is as good a place to start as any.