Record Bin: How Muddy Waters fused folk music and the blues on “Folk Singer”

Editor’s Note: The following article originally ran on The author was gracious enough to let us share it here.


Often referred to as the father of modern Chicago blues, Muddy Waters was a bluesman without equal. And though he often covered the same ground as his peers, his ability to draw an audience in so completely and have them be so emotionally invested in every pluck, riff and syllable gave him the ability to stand out among the multitude of other blues musicians. His voice is a commanding force even when it’s just a whisper held close for friends and lovers. Heartache and sadness wind themselves around his words and music—but there’s also a gentle wonder to his songs that allows some light to peek through from time to time.

For him, the blues represented much more than just the broken hearts, wounded spirits and lost souls who seemed to inhabit so many songs. The blues was a way to connect people with each other, and with both a shared hurt and love. There is an almost-endless depth to his work that stretches these sounds to their breaking points. Muddy Waters wasn’t just a man who found solace in the blues; he was a man who revealed the heart and soul of it to a world in desperate need of musical consolation. With little more than a guitar and a voice that could shake mountains and lacerate hearts, he purged his own experiences through this lens of a relentless emotional release.

e7267115b1235c65a0f9278837898a2a73439Born McKinley Morganfield, Waters was raised on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him, and he was raised by his grandmother, Della Grant. She is the one who gave him the nickname “Muddy,” because he was always playing in the mud of adjacent Deer Creek. He later changed it to “Muddy Water” before eventually settling on “Muddy Waters.”

He began playing the harmonica when he was younger but switched to the acoustic guitar in his late teens. He would often spend hours working out songs and emulating the sounds of artists like Robert Johnson and Son House. In 1941, noted folk archivist Alan Lomax came to Stovall as an agent of the Library of Congress to record various blues and country artists across the South. The recording took place inside Waters’ home and was the first time he’d heard his own voice on record. He was paid $20 and given two copies of the record, which he immediately took to a corner jukebox so everyone could hear it. Lomax returned a few years later to record with Waters again.

He moved to Chicago in 1943 hoping to earn a living as a professional musician, although he wound up working in a factory by day and performing at bars at night. Famed blues musician Big Bill Broonzy helped Waters break into the Chicago scene by allowing him to open shows for him around town. These were rowdy places, and his performances were often drowned by the noise of the bar. In 1945, his uncle Joe Grant gave him his first electric guitar so that he could be heard above the racket.

He recorded some tracks with Mayo Williams for Columbia Records in 1946, although they weren’t released at the time. Later that same year, he recorded with Aristocrat Records, which was a label founded by Leonard and Phil Chess. He played with pianist Sunnyland Slim on a few songs, but these were also shelved. Eventually, a few of his cuts, specifically “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home,” were released and received a measure of both commercial and critical success. Shortly after that, Aristocrat Records changed its name to Chess Records, with Waters’ classic song, “Rollin’ Stone,” leading the charge for the reworked label.

After a handful of records and a high-profile gig at the Newport Jazz Festival, Waters was approached by the Chess brothers about recording a folk record. The early ’60s was a boon time for the genre, with all manner of singers and songwriters becoming overnight sensations—and Chess wanted in on the action. And with the release of “Folk Singer” in 1964, the label got exactly what it was looking for … sort of. While ostensibly labeled a folk record, this collection is still clearly rooted in the blues. But the title got people’s attention, and so Muddy Waters became a folk singer, at least for one record.

Differing from his normal electric blues sound, “Folk Singer” unplugged everything and found Waters and his backing band in a rare and intimate mood. And the backing band, well … it was composed of guitarist Buddy Guy, bassist Willie Dixon and drummer Clifton James—a who’s who of legendary blues musicians. They took on a few covers, including a song by Dixon, but the majority of songs were written by Waters. This is less a studio record and more a personal conversation between friends—his ability to pull you into this stripped-down sound makes the record the perfect way for people to approach his work in general.

Songs such as “My Home Is in the Delta” and “Feel Like Coming Home” are built around his confessional voice and the sense of intimacy these recordings afforded him. “Folk Singer” is one of those rare albums that feels removed from the passing of time, a relic of sound from when it was the means through which people conveyed history and significant experiences, rather than just the instant gratification of fame and fortune. The revelations he coaxed from these songs are a prime example of how an artist could come to their own work from a slightly skewed perspective and still have it resonate in a meaningful way. It is brilliant and weary and hopeful, all things people expect from the mind of Muddy Waters.