Muddy Waters – Folk Singer
Released April, 1964
The Chicago Blues movement began in Chicago, Illinois, taking the acoustic blues and harmonica sound of the south and amplifying it. Muddy Waters is one of the main Chicago blues guys and is up there with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. Blues music is what it is partly because of guys like Muddy Waters and others in the Chicago Blues scene. Waters starting releasing singles in 1948, though it wasn’t until 1958 that he actually released an album, a greatest hits album at that. He started out releasing singles on the ‘Aristocrat Records’ label which would later become the infamous ‘Chess Records’.
“Folk Singer” was released in April, 1964. In fact, this recording features Willie Dixon on stand up bass, as well as a young Buddy Guy for all of you blues fans playing at home. Whilst the album is title “Folk Singer” it’s not so much a folk album. It’s really just an old school acoustic blues record. Apparently Chess Records wanted to cash in on the folk boom that was happening so they got him to record an album all acoustic like. This worked for Muddy because this is the style he grew up playing. Muddy Waters was the original cool man, so it’s fitting that he should be the one to pioneer the ‘unplugged’ album. Whilst having great critical success, “Folk Singer” was never a commercial success.
I was already pretty familiar with the work of Muddy Waters coming into this week but I had not heard this album. Just quietly, I was pleasantly surprised at how freaking good it is. I was more familiar with Muddy’s electric stuff so it was really nice listening to it stripped back. You can tell he’s totally not thinking when he is playing these songs, he’s breathing life into them. This album reminded me a bit of Elvis Presley’s “From Elvis in Memphis” in the way it was recorded. Just a group of amazing musicians in a room making awesome music. It just flows so sweetly. The guitar playing is second to none and Muddy’s resonate voice just fills the spaces nicely.
You can pretty much split “Folk Singer” into three parts. There are songs with the full band. There are songs with just Muddy and Buddy Guy. And then we have the last song with Muddy going solo. I really love the contrast between Muddy’s loose playing style and Buddy’s tight lyrical style. Highlights for me include ‘My Home is in the Delta’, ‘Cold Weather Blues’ and ‘Feels Like Going Home’. The blues guitar work on this album really is something else. The majority of lyrics here were written by Willie Dixon, which was common for the time. Lyrically the album is somewhat lacking but the soulful tones and sweet blues guitar make up for it. I listened to this album a lot late at night and it was a perfect way to wind down from the busy day.
At Newport in 1965, Bob Dylan was crucified for going electric. Waters did exactly the same thing at Newport in 1960, taking his acoustic blues and amplifying to great success, garnering him a new white audience who were unfamiliar with his sound in the process. It was this sound that made its way into the suburban households and sparked something new. From this we ended up with ‘The British Blues Explosion’ with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton doing what they did so well. It has been said that Rock music “can be boiled down to a partnership between Hank Williams’ honky tonk and Muddy Waters’ blues”. Even if you don’t like this album or style of music we owe Muddy Waters a great deal of gratitude for influencing some of the greatest bands the 60s and 70s did see. I for one am glad that Chess Records had Waters release this album. Whilst it was his electric sound that caught the attention of many, the songs here show where he started. It’s the raw essence of what blues music is. I’m glad we have it preserved on a classic album such as this.
The first couple of listens I kind of dug Muddy Waters… The simple arrangements, the cool, Southern acoustic guitar, his deep delta blues voice. “Yeah”, I thought to myself, “I can get behind this”.
My word, every single songs sound exactly the same! Seriously. They even have the same guitar run to intro the songs… The only single solitary song that that stands out is the slightly creepy ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’. I mean seriously? “Good Morning Little School Girl, can I go home with you? Tell your mother and your father I once was a school boy too”. Are you serious, we creepy son of a bitch? You were FIFTY when you released this song. FIFTY. Urgh. I know it’s a blues standard, but it’s just weird. It’s a shame about the lyrical content, because musically it’s the only song I enjoyed, and I think a lot of that is to do with the fact it’s different. That’s not to say the other songs are bad. They guitar is excellent in all of them. I guess that’s to be expected when you’ve got someone like Buddy Guy playing for you. (I know there were three guitarist in this recording, but I’m putting it down to Mr Guy. I know what he’s capable of). The album’s title is very appropriate. Muddy Waters sure is a Folk Singer. Though not in a modern “folk” Mumford and Sons, The Bon Ivers kind of way. His voice is deep, unrefined and soulful. I reckon it could have stretched far beyond the dullness this album displayed. Unsurprisingly, “Folk Singer” never charted in any country. Probably because it was made up of just the two tracks. It’s a huge shame, but the blues is much more than we got to hear.
This week I made the discovery that the bluesy tones of Muddy Waters album are the perfect accompaniment to a miserable rainy afternoon road trip through the Tasmanian countryside. The cruisy sounds of Muddy Waters’ laid-back Chicago blues are inoffensive on the ear, making it the perfect ‘chillout’ album. I think it’s no-fuss sound is largely due to the fact that the entire album is acoustic – in fact it was Muddy Waters’ only all-acoustic album. It has a lovely raw, pared-back feel to it and for the most part, only features 4 instruments, allowing the listener to enjoy the silences as much as the bigger moments. Musically, “Folk Singer” is far from perfect – the guitars have a twangy, off kilter (out of tune) sound to them, but Water’s vocal is deep and chocolatey, and the lyrics are angsty and reek of regret and bitterness – making for the attainment of a fantastic blues sound. It may not be technically brilliant, but it still is musically brilliant! I can see why it received critical acclaim even though it gained no chart success to speak of. Once again I have been surprised to find that an album a) I’d never heard of, and b) a genre I’ve never really been excited about – could be so great, and that I would look forward to each time I got to listen to it. I plan to keep “Folk Singer” in my music collection for future reference – it made for easy listening and it’s the type if album I’d listen to while cooking dinner or taking a bath.
I don’t disguise the fact that I’m no fan of the blues. It’s one genre I’ve never had any time for and I can’t get into it. I don’t mind the odd song here and there, but when I have to listen to a whole album it just does my freaking head in. I quite liked the opening track, ‘My Home Is In The Delta,’ and it features everything you’d expect from Muddy Waters; those controlled and powerful vocals along with some tasty slide guitar riffs. However, the next track sounded like it was the same song played slightly slower! My gloomy disposition at the thought of what the rest of the album would bring was lifted when ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ started playing; it didn’t last long. Although it has a faster pace than the previous tracks it bored me after it hit the one minute mark. As the album continued I found myself constantly turning the volume up to see if it was still playing. This album was praised for its production, as recording blues with acoustic instrumentation must have been fairly innovative at the time. I think the use of reverb was a little overboard though, particularly on ‘Cold Weather Blues’. When Muddy hits a loud note, it’s quite startling and the vocals are so drenched with echo that it’s hard to make out the lyrics. I’m not down on Muddy, I think he’s good at what he does, but this isn’t for me. I cheer along with the best of them when he almost steals the show on “The Last Waltz” singing ‘Mannish Boy’. There’s just nothing on this album that’s as exciting as that performance. I have never been so relieved as I was when my third listen concluded. For blues enthusiasts only.