Muddy Waters

Sample this concert
  1. 1Introduction01:38
  2. 2Blues And Trouble04:56
  3. 3Song Introduction00:25
  4. 4Walkin' Blues04:05
  5. 5Song Introduction00:27
  6. 6I Can't Be Satisfied03:06
Liner Notes

Muddy Waters - vocals, slide guitar

The oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, the Library of Congress, contains much of the pioneering research and documentation that exists on traditional American music. Largely responsible for this was the Lomax family. In 1933 Thomas Edison's widow provided John Lomax with an Edison cylinder recorder so that he could create firsthand documentation of rural traditional music in America. In the process of cataloging and preserving this music, the Lomax family began unearthing musical artists who would not only become as influential as the most popular artists of the day, but in many cases would change the sonic landscape of the nation.

A prime example occurred during the height of World War II, when Alan Lomax (son of John) ventured into the Deep South with a new state-of-the-art disc-cutting recorder mounted in the back of his father's Model T. Traveling to Clarksdale, Mississippi's Stoval Plantation in 1941, with this vintage mobile recording unit on board, Lomax conducted the first field recordings and interviews with McKinley Morganfield, a budding blues musician sharecropper better known as Muddy Waters. Waters was a direct disciple of Son House, a former Baptist preacher who conveyed a frightening intensity with his highly distinctive interpretation of Delta blues. Waters was an equally powerful singer and like his primary influences, Son House and Robert Johnson, a highly emotive guitarist with a slashing slide technique.

In Alan Lomax's book, The Land Where Blues Began he conveys an insightful encapsulation of these early field recordings of Muddy Waters: "I remember thinking how low-key Morganfield was, grave even to the point of shyness, but I was bowled over by his artistry. There was nothing uncertain about his performances. He sang and played with such finesse, with such a mercurial and sensitive bond between voice and guitar, and he expressed so much tenderness in the way he handled his lyrics, that he went right beyond all his predecessors—Blind Lemon, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown." High praise indeed, but little did he know just how profound an influence this musician would soon have.

Within just a few years, Muddy Waters would travel north to Chicago. It was here that he began playing electric guitar. This new amplified element contributed additional power to his razor-sharp style, which caught the attention of the Chess brothers, who initially recorded him in 1944. Although those sessions would prove fruitless, the Chess brothers pursued Waters again in 1948. This time Waters returned to the slide guitar and style of his initial field recordings for Lomax, but amplified and with a full band of handpicked musicians on board. Waters cut an astounding stream of soon to be blues standards including "I Can't Be Satisfied," a raw uncut Delta blues based on "I Be's Troubled" from his plantation recordings for Lomax. Leonard Chess had doubts about the sessions, but on the day of release, "I Can't Be Satisfied" sold out of its first pressing and surpassed all expectations, effectively launching Muddy Waters career as a recording artist.

Over the course of the next decade, Waters would revolutionize and revitalize the Chicago blues scene. His prowess on electric guitar, slide technique, commanding vocals, and his evocative songwriting introduced a big city feel into his unique brand of Delta blues. These innovations had a profound effect on nearly every bluesman that followed. Indeed, over the course of the next two decades, Waters served to mentor and launch many prominent blues musicians, many of who became bandleaders in the years to come. As a bandleader himself, Waters established the ensemble sound and style of Chicago electric blues, and this format (electric guitar/bass/piano/drums and usually the greatest of harmonica players) served as a basic blueprint for rock music in the 1960s and beyond.

All of which makes this extremely rare solo acoustic performance, recorded at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, all the more compelling. Following the promise of a "special treat" by the master of ceremonies, Muddy Waters surprises the '69 Newport Folk Festival audience by taking the stage alone, armed with just an acoustic guitar. Unscheduled, but agreeing to perform while his mentor, Son House, was delayed on arriving at the festival grounds, Waters not only pays homage to House, but also delivers a brief set of penetrating power. In the midst of his most experimental era, having recently explored psychedelia on his controversial Electric Mud album and soon to record the now legendary Fathers And Sons album (both of which featured younger disciple musicians), here is Muddy Waters returning to the core elements of his 1941 plantation recordings.

Waters and his various band members contributed so much over the years that these core elements are often buried or obscured within the collective musicianship on his recordings. This Newport performance strips everything away, allowing one to clearly hear the root sound that impressed Alan Lomax so much back in 1941. Even a quarter century later, this performance emphasizes just how important Son House, and to a lesser degree, Robert Johnson, was to Waters' deep earthy sound.

After acknowledging House as his idol, Waters pays homage by cutting loose with striking, tense slide work on a bone-chilling performance of "Blues and Trouble." Waters literally channels House next on "Walkin' Blues," prefacing the song by saying, "I'll do it like Son House would do it if he was here." A song now strongly associated with Robert Johnson, this is an equally powerful performance, both vocally and instrumentally.

After checking status on Son House's arrival amidst shouts for more, Waters treats the audience to one additional song and his set closer couldn't have been better chosen. He concludes with the raw uncut Delta blues of "I Can't Be Satisfied," the song that kick-started his career in Chicago. However, here it's more like "I Be's Troubled" on the Library of Congress recordings nearly two decades prior. For those who already appreciate the early Lomax recordings of Waters, the outstanding quality of this recording might just be revelatory. Stripped down to just vocal, attitude, classic Son House riffs and his own piercing slide technique, this is un-enhanced, undiluted Muddy Waters laid out clear for all to hear.

Written by Alan Bershaw