The Real Folk Blues, released in 1966, is a combination of twelve of Muddy Waters’ recordings from 1949 to 1954, but it’s all quality stuff and the album was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017 as a “Classic of Blues Recordings.”
Chess took the opportunity with the folk and blues revivals of the early sixties to promote Muddy to a new and younger generation of music fans, his last chart hit with Chess having been in 1958. In 1964, they released Waters’ only acoustic album, Folk Singer, and then, two years later, The Real Folk Blues.
The album includes Canary Bird, named in honour of his wife, Geneva, and originally released on the Aristocrat label in 1949 with Ernest “Big” Crawford on bass. As well as Clarksdale, the song mentions Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters lived in a sharecropper’s shack for the first thirty years of his life. It’s delightfully raw, with Waters’ voice to the fore.
Another early song is Gypsy Woman, from 1947, which features Sunnyland Slim on piano. There’s a definite Robert Johnson feel about this one, both in terms of the blues turnarounds and Water’s singing. As there is in an early Water’s version of Johnson’s Walking Blues, sparsely arranged with just his singing and characteristic slide guitar.
The album kicks off with Mannish Boy, first recorded in 1955, with that famous harmonica lick. The song is a classic, included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” “I’m a man,” Muddy asserts, “I’m a full grown man.” Like most African Americans of his day, Muddy Waters had still been referred to as a boy even when grown, especially in his native Mississippi. “No b-o-y,” he sings – now free of the extreme Southern racism and oppression and a successful musician in Chicago, Muddy Waters could assert his black manhood. (For more on the song Mannish Boy, click here.]
Screaming and Crying recorded in September 1949, featured “Baby Face” Leroy Foster who played guitar with his hands, and bass drum and hi-hat with his feet! It’s a nice slow tempo blues driven by Little Johnny Jones’s rolling piano, where Muddy bemoans the loss of his past life, his mother, his wives and his happy home. It’s truly the blues!
There is a 1950 version of Rollin’ And Tumblin’, a blues standard, first recorded in 1929 by Hambone Willie Newbern for Okeh Records. This is the song that Robert Johnson adapted as If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day in 1936 in his third recording session in San Antonio. Waters recorded two versions of the song in 1950 and I believe this is the one recorded for Aristocat, with the bass accompaniment by Ernest Crawford. Subsequent rock takes on the song, like Cream’s, are based on Muddy Waters.
Willie Dixon’s The Same Thing is another fine inclusion, featuring Otis Spann on piano and Dixon on bass, as is the classic Just To Be With You, with great lines like “[I will] Fight a shark with a toothpick,” and “I’d call my mother-in-law honey.”
The album closes with You Can’t Lose What You Never Had, another one with loss after loss – woman, money, burned-down home – piling up to deliver the blues. It features some tasty slide guitar from Muddy and is a fine way to finish what amounts to a classic – and quality – collection of early Muddy Waters’ recordings.