Happy 55th Anniversary to Muddy Waters’ fourth studio album Folk Singer, originally released in April 1964.
Muddy Waters' Folk Singer is an acoustic album by a blues artist famous for his electric work. Back in 1964, Chess, Waters' label, was concerned about the folk boom and how it might impact record sales. So they had Waters make an acoustic blues album, giving it a misleading name, perhaps to trick inattentive record-buyers.
Waters, originally of Issaquena County, Mississippi, led the electrification of the blues from Chicago, which set the tone (and standard) for rock and blues for the next half century. The very quick history of the blues starts in the rural south, with artists using voice and some kind of stringed instrument. Starting in the 1940s, some of those musicians eventually headed north to Chicago where they continued to play, but required electric instruments to be heard over the din of crowds.
The album is a testament to the ongoing prescience of the record industry. The very same month Folk Singer was released, the Rolling Stones released their debut album. Not only are the Stones named for a Waters' song, but that debut featured the Waters' tune "I Just Want to Make Love to You." So just as the British Invasion was about to blast open rock and pop, powered by electric blues artists like Waters, Leonard and Phil Chess, the owners of Chess Records, were worried about folk. Suffice it to say, in hindsight they missed quite an opportunity and completely misread the future of music (although imagine the past 45 years of pop if Joan Baez had been calling the shots, as the Chess brothers predicted).
Folk Singer featured not just Waters himself, but Willie Dixon on upright bass and Buddy Guy on guitar. Dixon was a blues legend, writing tons of famous blues tunes, including the aforementioned "I Just Want to Make Love to You." He also played with every blues great. Not only was Dixon the soul of the blues, he was its heartbeat. Blues legend Guy was just 28 years-old, a virtual unknown at the time. This was a killer band.
As good as the band was, the album stands the test of time because of how Waters and Dixon approached the album concept. Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and like Waters, grew up playing acoustic blues. Much of this Delta music was never recorded and the recordings that were made were of rough quality. Alan Lomax, who captured many of these performances for the Library of Congress—including a young Waters—was working in the field using the equipment of the time, which, unfortunately, wasn't great.
And so Waters and Dixon re-created that kind of country blues sound, using contemporary recording techniques and adding drums (the sublime drums of Clifton James, to be exact). The result brilliantly bridged Delta blues and Chicago electric blues, creating something timeless that still stands up today.
Waters signals his intent with the first track, "My Home Is in the Delta," a Waters original. A lonely slide guitar kicks the song off, playing a Robert Johnson-approved lick, before James' drums trundle in along with Dixon's bass. Waters' voice soon follows, sounding like a deity. His voice is as deep as a canyon and you can hear every subtle flex of his vocal cords. He takes his time singing, the antithesis of many Delta sides, which often seemed to have a mania to them. Guy's slide guitar work is melodic, but with a country rawness. Taken together, it summarizes why the album is timeless. Waters and Dixon re-imagine the music of their youth for more modern times, a seamless blending of old and new.
But the album isn't just early-1960s-state-of-the-art; it could be released today and hold up. "Good Morning Little School Girl," a blues standard covered by everyone from John Lee Hooker to Chuck Berry to the Grateful Dead, sounds crisp and sophisticated here. The drums and guitar lock-in to create a singular groove while Waters’ authoritative voice croons over it all. The tempo is perfect, living between a gallop and a crawl, and there's not one extra note to be heard. It's years ahead of so much of that early ‘60s music, which either felt overproduced or too spartan.
Rolling Stone critic J.D. Considine called a Folk Singer reissue "wonderfully intimate" back in 1994. Intimate is the perfect word to describe the album. You can hear all of the instruments perfectly, like you're in the room with the band. You can hear Waters' voice clearly, because he's doesn't need to strain to be heard over electric instruments. In a way, Folk Singer is the perfect antidote to the challenges that initially made artists like Waters plug into amps. They needed to be heard and recording like this allowed Waters to be heard without the need for amplification.
The one question about Folk Singer is if it's a perfect album or if it's the lens through which blues perfection is viewed. Every acoustic blues album is, to a certain extent, judged against Folk Singer. It immediately defined the genre, even if it didn't invent it. Most people who might not know the blues probably think of the Folk Singer sound—the relaxed drums, the acoustic slide guitar, the bobbing bass—as what is meant by the blues. But the perfection also comes from the performances. Waters, Guy, and Dixon are an all-star team, as is Otis Spann, who handles the piano and harmonica on some tracks. Just like The Godfather is the standard against which all mafia stories are judged, Folk Singer looms just as large for the blues, from the concept to the execution.
Folk Singer isn't typical Muddy Waters fare, but it's still an important album. While British teens were getting excited by Waters' electric music, Folk Singer pointed them further back to Delta blues. Sure, not all of them needed directions (the teenage Eric Clapton was already a rabid Robert Johnson fan), but Folk Singer served as a great segue into the not-so-distant past. Thank goodness the Chess brothers had such a poor handle on popular culture.