Muddy Waters at Newport

Muddy Waters : Muddy Waters at Newport (#29)

Muddy Waters | Muddy Waters at Newport (November 1960)
MCA / Chess
(USA)
Chicago Blues – 32:38

“There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money.”

Money changes people. It’s an obvious thing to say but there is a huge difference between the work of a struggling artist and one who has plenty of money in the bank. Once you have made your mark on the world, it is easy to assume that you suddenly have something to lose. In politics, Winston Churchill once commented that if you didn’t vote Labour in your 20s, then you had no heart; if you didn’t vote Conservative in your 40s, then you had no head. When you are young, you can be idealistic – you can push boundaries, because you don’t have anything to lose. Once you have a taste of something more, you don’t want to lose it and so, as an artist, you’ll want to give them more of the same. Sometimes it can be no bad thing and your work can even develop to explore the themes which come from being one of the ‘haves’ rather than one of the ‘have-nots’. But what happens when the pieces which you produce so successfully require you to be unsuccessful. Or, to put it another way, how do you sing the blues when you’ve got nothing to be blue about? It is a question which every successful blues artist has asked, including one of the greatest of all – Muddy Waters.

Not that Muddy Waters needed to worry about that in 1960. His brand of music had proved an underground hit within the black communities already listening to his style; but, as much as it made him a star to a small portion of the population, he was largely unknown to the wider music-buying public of America and beyond. And by ‘wider public’ read a white audience. Fortunately the late 1950s and early 1960s saw the barriers slowly coming down, and it was a performance at Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 that helped do that for Muddy. The artist, known to his mother as McKinley Morganfield, had been playing throughout the 1950s with Chess Records. His style of Chicago Blues used electric instruments as opposed to the acoustic ones that the mainstream audience was more familiar with when it listened to the blues. By the end of the 1950s, his sales were starting to dip, and it was a case of taking action to draw in new listeners.

Given the style of blues that was popular at the time, it does make me wonder whether the sound of electric blues had as much of an effect on its audience as Bob Dylan plugging in an electric guitar a few years later at the Newport Folk Festival five years later. Certainly, Muddy didn’t face the aggressive criticism which Dylan saw in 1965; no shouts of Judas were fired at the performers. Instead, if reports of the gig are to go by, the musicians had the audience of young hipsters in the aisles and dancing by the end of the 35 minute set. It is easy to hear why – opener I Got My Brand on You displays all the rawness you associate with the blues from the Mississippi Delta. The whole set has an incessant beat that drives its way under the skins. Sometimes it feels that Blues all sound the same; that slow, steady guitaring that repeats itself repeatedly in each song, the harmonica blasting between identical lines of lyrics. But thankfully Muddy Waters’ live album proves me to be wrong. Yes, there is a certain style to the genre which is adhered to, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

As the album progresses through the – now famous – Hoochie Coochie Man – and into the wonderful Baby, Please Don’t Go, it is understandable why the young groovy things got up to dance; this is great music, kept simple. But it is with the slower Soon Forgotten that you realise that Blues music is not a bunch of similar sounding numbers; instead the track knocks the vibe into something much quieter, bringing a feeling of hollowness and raw pain to the song of lost love. Tiger in the Tank, a fun track, quickly changes the tempo again, with an underlying spirit of rebelliousness to it that matches much of what rock ‘n’ roll was doing elsewhere. Indeed, there is a reason why the blues musicians influenced the rock stars of the future as much as any other music genre of the 1950s; it is little surprise that guitarist extraordinaires Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton both had this album as an early influence on them, alongside many other giants of rock from the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the end, with the piano picking up the groove for I’ve Got My Mojo Working Part One and Part Two, the blues take on a gospel air that sounds as much as a call to arms for the electric blues – and one that worked, sending the audience into a frenzy.

The influence of the blues on modern music cannot be denied; when it sounds as powerful and raw as this, it is easy to see why it was picked up by so many performers. True, Muddy later confessed that singing the blues became more difficult once he had hit the mainstream, but that didn’t stop his earlier work from showing his real talent. Be thankful that he was able to suffer enough to produce work like At Newport; it is more than a piece of history, but the sound of a musician displaying his skills. Without albums like this, the landscape of popular music over the last five decades would have been very different.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Muddy Waters at Newport here:

Next time: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans

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