Muddy Waters came to Chicago in 1943, but didn’t have a hit recording until 1948’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. He learned his craft from Delta bluesman Eddie “Son” House and others and was recorded by Alan Lomax and John Work in 1941. Two years later he boarded the train for Chicago, where he hoped to be able to make a living playing music. On the heels of that first hit record, he became one of the city’s top blues bandleaders and singers. His recordings on the Aristocrat and Chess record labels helped to revolutionize the blues, helping to create an urban blues sound that influenced generations of blues and rock guitarists/singers.
Muddy’s last R&B chart hit with Chess came in 1958, and by the time the Rolling Stones and other British blues-based bands like the Animals were hitting the U.S., he was no longer a popular recording artist. Chess looked about for a way to promote the singer to a young generation, and hit upon the folk music craze that was taking place. Muddy Waters, Folk Singer was released in 1964, and in 1966 The Real Folk Blues came out. The tracks included were a collection of Muddy’s work, including his very first single for Aristocrat, “Gypsy Woman” (1947) as well as things he had recorded in the early ’60s. This meant that some of the songs came from the deep rural blues tradition (the “folk” aspect) while others were much more urban, demonstrating the influential sound that Waters had been spreading around since his arrival in Chicago.
The album opens with “Mannish Boy” which was to be a mainstay of Waters’ repertoire for much of his career (see his performance captured in Martin Scorseses’ The Last Waltz). Jimmy Rogers provides incendiary guitar punctuations to Waters’ preaching on the song, along with Willie Dixon on bass and either Little Walter or Junior Wells on harmonica. “Screamin’ and Cryin'” is from 1949, and has a much more rural blues feel, with Waters’ guitar the main instrument with some backing from Little Johnny Jones on piano as well as bass and drums. Waters’ own composition “Walking thru the Park” features James Cotton on harmonica and reworks some lyrical material (“She may cut you / She may shoot you too”) from Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording “Ain’t No Tellin'”. His reworking of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ the Blues” is just Waters, his guitar, and the loping bass work of Ernest “Big” Crawford, a combination that we hear quite a bit of on More Real Folk Blues, and one that provides the maximum heat-soaked, humidity-drenched Delta blues experience. For an example of just how much Muddy and others in Chicago had changed the sound of blues, check out the most recent recording on Real Folk Blues, Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing”, recorded in 1964. Here a band comprised on Otis Spann on piano, James “Pee Wee” Madison on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and S.P. Leary on drums demonstrate the urban, midnight-in-a-back alley sound that most modern blues listeners will recognize immediately. Yet, the blues is still the blues, as Dixon point out in his original liner notes for the album: “Muddy Waters, in ‘Same Thing’ emphasizes the fact that the world seems to fight about the same things. Muddy Waters is looking deep into the facts of life.”
The second LP included on this disc, More Real Folk Blues contains music from a much more compact period of Waters’ career, 1948-1952. There are fewer band arrangements, with most of the tracks featuring Waters and the bassist Ernest “Big” Crawford, sometimes with the addition of harmonica. Also interesting is the fact that despite the “folk blues” sound of these recordings, all of the tracks were actually written by Waters himself. Of course, his songs show the heavy imprint of various Delta blues masters, particularly Sonny Boy Williamson, whose “Down South” becomes “Down South Blues”. There is no question that one is in the presence of a blues master when listening to these recordings, which many who came to Muddy Waters through his later efforts, some with various rock musicians playing or producing, will not be familiar with.
The sound quality on these recordings is excellent as well, which dramatically helps in gaining listeners used to today’s top-notch digital recordings-just look at the increased interest in Charlie Patton since the digitally remastered release of his recordings. It’s interesting to note that by the time More Real Folk Blues was released in 1967, Muddy Waters was beginning to play venues like the Fillmore and that the ’70s would see a resurgence of his career as famous rock musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and John Mayall cited him as major influences on themselves and their respective bands. Muddy no longer needed the “folk blues” marketing tactic to help him reach a younger audience. Thankfully, Chess Records hit upon this plausible way of repackaging some of his earlier recordings to keep him going in the meantime. Not every blues performer was so lucky.