I’m going to start a piece about Muddy Waters and the history of the blues by talking about The Sex Pistols, so bear with me.
The Sex Pistols 1976 gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall was one of the most influential of all time, not because of a vast crowd – there were only 42 people there – but because, as legend has it (and as articulately explained by Steve Coogan in the film 24 Hour Party People) everyone who was there went out and formed a band, including members of Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths, New Order, Buzzcocks, Magazine and the writer Paul Morley. Oh, and Mick Hucknall.
Bob Dylan caused consternation in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival when he went “electric”. It was, some thought, a betrayal of the “pure” folk music and political songwriting Dylan had become known for.
However, before both these incidents, one man achieved similar influence and controversy. That man was Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters and his band may not have invented electric blues, but they made the biggest impact of any of their contemporaries: transforming the perception of blues as a mainly acoustic regional folk music to that of amplified Delta blues – a style which became known as Chicago blues.
After the Mississippi Delta, Chicago became an important breeding ground for the blues for a very good reason.
“Even before the end of the century the Delta was acting as a kind of funnel for blacks. On the one hand they were being drawn into the area from the South and East. On the other hand many of them were already leaving and heading North. Most of those who left took the Illinois Central Railroad, which ran…from New Orleans up through the Delta to Chicago in just 24 hours.
People became economic migrants. In Chicago “A man…didn’t have to wait until the cotton harvest each year to find out how much his crop was worth, how much debt he’d accumulated at the plantation store and whether he’d come out in the red or in the black.”
“By the summer of 1944, Time Magazine estimated that since the beginning of the decade 50,000 black people had left Mississippi for the North.”
The electric guitar first appeared on records in the late 1930’s. Muddy Waters bought his first one in 1944. He formed a band with Little Walter Jacobs on harp, Baby Face Leroy on drums and Jimmy Rogers on guitar and began playing gigs and making records for Aristocrat, soon to be re-named Chess Records.
Before Muddy Waters, there was Delta blues, but his 1950’s recordings for the Chess label transformed this music into one with popular appeal and laid the foundations for rock n roll. He did this by his use of amplification which didn’t just make the music louder, it made it – and the message it carried – more urgent. When he toured the UK in 1958 he caused a stir in the folk and skiffle loving community just as Bob Dylan would do seven years later. As Charles Shaar Murray put it in his excellent “Boogie Man” “The notion that “Chicago Blues” – the rumbustious calamitous soundtrack of the urban world of Delta migrants transplanted to the big cities – had cultural value equivalent to that of the downhome rural forms was an entirely new one, and not entirely free from controversy.”
“Screaming guitar and Howling piano” said the next morning’s UK newspaper headlines.
Muddy Waters told Melody Maker, “Cause, see, I’d been playin’ here in Chicago with these people who turned (their amplifiers) up. Now I know that the people in England like soft guitar and the old blues, next time I come I’ll learn some old songs first”.
“Until Muddy arrived in England all the black bluesmen who’d performed there – Broonzy, Josh White, Terry and McGhee – had played acoustic music in a style the skiffle fans could easily relate to. Muddy, innocent of this audience’s expectations, cranked up his amplifier, hit a crashing bottleneck run, and began hollering his blues.” *
Or as Bob Stanley describes in “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, Muddy “shocked the beatnik purists at St Pancras Town Hall by playing electric guitar. Some booed.”
Two years later came Muddy’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The festival was almost cancelled after ten thousand teenagers broke in and a riot ensued, but the Sunday afternoon blues show was allowed to take place, and Muddy brought his whole band. Chess recorded the performance and the record was a critical success. It remains in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 Albums list.
Muddy Waters’ “Live at Newport” was the most influential blues record in the UK, because – just like the Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall twenty five years later – it inspired people to go out and form a band. Specifically in this case (according to Charles Shaar Murray) it inspired harmonica player Cyril Davies and guitarist Alexis Korner to form possibly the first white electric blues band in the world. Korner would himself become the most influential British bluesman, starting a club that would eventually give The Rolling Stones their first real platform.
But the record’s influence isn’t just what makes it great. Like another sixties live LP in my collection, Ray Charles’ Live In Concert (released in 1965) it remains a fun and compelling document of a great live performance and performer – and it is also a record that will have you jumping around, tapping your feet or whatever else you might feel like doing in your living room as you play it.
And Muddy isn’t all about one album.
Listen to the original version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters for the catchiest, nay jauntiest slide guitar riff you could ever wish for. It’s wearing its hat on the side of its head and is whistling cheerfully in time to the chugging-train beat.
“I Want To Be Loved” was a Willie Dixon penned song re-recorded by Muddy on his “Hard Again” LP released in ’77. “Hard Again” was produced by Jonny Winter and represented a successful “comeback” after Waters left Chess Records and features three songs that Muddy had recorded previously including the two aforementioned songs.
The harmonica riff on “I Want To Be Loved” is infectious and Muddy’s delivery is so self assured. The Rolling Stones covered the song in their early years, but their version, although charming, is but a pale imitation.
“Mannish Boy” (co-written by Bo Diddley and Mel London – who also wrote “Poison Ivy”) is another cast iron classic. “I’m a man!” declares Waters, fighting back against that racial slur of “Boy”.
Indeed, “Hard Again” is a great album, featuring strong originals such as “Little Girl”, and “Walking Through The Park”.
I started this article mentioning punk rock, and on reflection, although they are worlds apart perhaps the comparison isn’t as crazy as it sounds. After all, both punk and blues began as forms of music made by society’s poorest, most persecuted and disaffected. However, Live at Newport doesn’t want sympathy. It just wants to make you move your feet, and although it was recorded more than fifty years ago, it doesn’t sound as though it will ever get old. No future? I think Live at Newport has many more years left in it yet…
Muddy Waters: Live At Newport
* Also from “Deep Blues” by Robert Palmer