MCA/Chess has recently put out four classic “two-for” blues collections originally released in the ’60s under the titles The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folk Blues, by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf: the very heart of the Chess blues roster.
Muddy Waters is the greatest of the Chicago bluesmen, and arguably second in importance in blues history only to Robert Johnson, but the Chess label was also crucial to Waters’ success. The Chess brothers ruled Chicago blues in the pivotal ’50s and ’60s and helped facilitate the transition from the rural acoustic blues of the Mississippi Delta to the urban electric blues Waters pioneered and perfected.
Lazer and Philip Chez, aged 11 and 6, were herded through Ellis Island on Columbus Day 1928 from their village near Pinsk, Poland, and transformed into Leonard and Phil Chess. They joined their father, who had been running a junkyard in a Jewish neighborhood near the South Side of Chicago.
Leonard’s childhood polio left him with a limp, ineligible for military service. During the war he pursued various business interests, including liquor stores and dive bars. Eventually, he moved up to the Macomba Lounge, an upscale jazz and blues club at the heart of the South Side. The club featured major national acts like Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. The predominantly black crowds were regular and enthusiastic, and as label talent scouts sniffed around the back door, Leonard realized he could sell records as well as drinks to his customers.
The Chess brothers bought into a local label called Aristocrat in 1947. Early releases were a hodgepodge of jazz, pop and blues. Aristocrat also generated controversy early on with the release of the single, “Union Man Blues/Bilbo Is Dead,” by Macomba house singer Andrew Tibbs. “Union Man” angered the Teamsters in the North, and “Bilbo Is Dead,” an ironic lament about the passing of Mississippi segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo, riled those who cared about such things in the South.
For his first Aristocrat session, “Johnson Machine Gun,” veteran Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim brought in a youthful guitarist, Muddy Waters, fresh from the Mississippi Delta. Waters recorded “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (not in this collection, but “Screamin’ and Cryin’,” “Canary Bird,” “Gypsy Woman,” “Little Geneva,” “Sittin’ Here and Drinkin’,” “Down South Blues,” “Train Fare Home Blues” and “Kind Hearted Woman” from the same era are) in April 1948 and the first issue sold out in 12 hours. Reeking of the country funk of the Delta, Waters’ single is a violent shout into the void that laid the foundation of the Chess sound: heavy on vicious electric slide guitar, thumping rhythm and unadulterated blues wailing.
Leonard reportedly couldn’t understand what Waters was singing in the studio, but he understood the sales and somehow grasped that the records sold because, not in spite, of the track’s rawness.
This insight was of such importance that American Heritage magazine (December 1994) selected the Chess brothers as among the 10 most important agents of change in America since 1950 with the following comment:
- “The Chess brothers made records that helped transport African-American culture, especially its language and music, to its central place in American culture…The Chess brothers’ story is one in which greed and inspiration swirled together in a characteristically American pot where the ingredients did not so much melt as alloy in a metallurgical sense: steel guitar, electricity, and vinyl transmuted into a wholly new cultural substance.”
Waters came to Chicago from the famous Mississippi Delta – the birthplace of the blues – which stretches from Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south, to Memphis, Tennessee in the north, and from central Mississippi in the east, to the Ozark Plateau of Arkansas in the west.
Though largely uninhabited until the 1840’s, the Delta proved to be fertile ground (due to regular flooding, much like the Nile) and cotton plantations boomed throughout the region. After the Civil War many former slaves remained tied to the land in the South through the sharecropping farming system, whereby the farmer pledged large shares of his future crops to the landowner in exchange for use of land, seed, tools, clothing and the like. This system remained very powerful at least until WW1, and often the farmer was unable to get out from under the crushing debt accumulated under it.
Often, the only way out of debt and into possibly better conditions was to move, which many black families did often: thus the themes of suffering, oppression, and the road-as-salvation were the themes of many blues songs. The blues, like gospel, derived from a blending of African rhythms and tonalities with European songs structures, and evolved out of work songs and field hollers.
The Delta was also home to the notorious levee camps, another oppressive system where mostly black workers were hired to build and maintain the levees that kept the Mississippi River in check, and were often abused, underpaid, and overcharged for necessities. Many Delta blues musicians first performed professionally for Saturday night dances at the camps.
Though the banjo was probably the original blues instrument, the guitar had largely replaced the banjo by the turn of the 20th century, probably because the banjo had become associated with the racist minstrel shows. The harmonica also became very popular because it was a melody instrument that could be played along with guitar by the same person.
The slide guitar technique, using a glass bottle or curved metal piece (typically attached to the pinky finger) to slide up and down the high strings while the fingers plucked out the rhythm on the low strings, became the instrumental foundation of the Delta blues sound, and combined with rough, almost shouted vocals became blues at its most elemental.
This is the tradition in which Waters grew up. He was born McKinley Morganfield (1915) into a family of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers and learned his craft emulating masters like Son House and Robert Johnson. He earned his nickname playing near a muddy creek as a child. Waters’ first recordings were made in Mississippi for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in the early-’40s, and he first went to Chicago in the mid-’40s backing up Sonny Boy Williamson. Waters changed to electric guitar in ’44: one of the most important instrument switches in popular music history.
The Real Folk Blues/More Folk Blues consists of recordings Waters made for the Chess brothers between 1947 and 1956 (with two from ’64 tossed in), first for Aristocrat label, then for the Chess label. Besides hearing the evolution of Waters’ music from pure Delta style to the early rockin’ Chicago band sound with the addition of second guitar, drums, bass, and the great Little Walter on harmonica, here are also the first recordings of such blues classics as “Honey Bee” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The collection is also a testament to Waters’ great slashing, shivering slide guitar style and ample charisma.