It is unquestionably one of the greatest blues albums ever made, including as it does one of the most evocative blues songs recorded during the modern era. Muddy Waters’s The Folk Singer is a tour de force that combines the Delta roots of the man born and raised in Mississippi with the skills he honed in Chicago.
Since first encountering Leonard and Phil Chess in 1947, at their Aristocrat Records studio (the fledgling label that soon matured into Chess Records), the Delta Blues scene had fizzled to the electrifying bolt of Waters’ gravel-sucking growl, scintillating slide work, and a pulsating stomp boomed by whichever manifestation of his performing band was currently assembled. Compared to the music’s acoustic beginnings, Waters’ interpretation packed the punch of a defibrillator turned up to 11.
His re-interpretation of the Delta sound: loud, confident, brash, and seemingly sassy in the face of convention, was a natural magnet for the extrovert youth of the mid-60s. It’s no coincidence that The Rolling Stones would come knocking at his door just a few months after the tapes had stopped rolling for The Folk Singer sessions in September 1963.
While we would never want to do without this scaled-down gem, you’ve got to wonder how taking an unplugged u-turn was supposed to better engender Waters to a young white audience, given that his raw energy provided his major pull. Indeed, during a period when he was becoming known overseas, touring in Germany and the UK, those were the tactics behind the album, and it worked.
Hence the sublime, yet understated, sounds on this great album, which was placed at 280 out of 500 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest albums of all time and released in April 1964. Paring back the amplified instruments has the effect of bringing the Waters’ bellow even further forward of the bass and drums, and one other guitar played by Buddy Guy on all tracks bar the solo “Feel Like Going Home,” which rounds off the album with its consummate lesson in microtonal command and evocative blues delivery.
At the opposite end of the album, the first notes you hear are Waters’ slide whimpering a call, emboldened by Willie Dixon’s gentle-paced bass encouragement, and the reassuringly solid strikes on Clifton James’ snare drum. Bo Diddley’s drummer here is the master of tasteful minimalism and light-handedness, infrequently breaking into nothing more than a pitter-patter fill. The effect is space – lots of space – in the music to pitch and roll in the thunderous waves of Waters’s voice. It’s some of the loudest quiet music ever made, sounding superb in crisp digital clarity.
Renditions of Waters’s classics, including “Good Morning Little School Girl,” here stripped down to the bare essentials, somehow sound more powerful for it. That slide and voice keeps pulling you in, exerting a hypnotic control. Like being tossed about in the surf, it’s mesmerizing and frightening in equal measures.
Enjoy also the bonus tracks laid down in subsequent sessions: Willie Dixon‘s “The Same Thing” and Waters’ ode to detachment, “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had.” Superb, even classic songs, but the real magic is in the nine original tracks that make up what some call Muddy Waters’ best album.
The Folk Singer is often overlooked or missed entirely. Whenever it is discovered, it proves to be a revelation.