Muddy Waters: The Complete Aristocrat and Chess Singles As & Bs, 1947–62Acrobat (4CD set), $20.99 Howlin’ Wolf: The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951–62Acrobat (3CD set), $17.99
Back when I was writing my college thesis, a ragbag work I thought was mostly about the Beatles and how musical art can inform how one lives life, a number of blues luminaries—Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf—kept turning up with strange regularity. They seemed to work well within my manuscript though, so I let them have their place, only to realize years later as an adult that if you’re writing about how music actually shapes who you are and how you think, you’re likely, in a sense, to be talking about some form of the blues.Blues zealots tend to be especially committed to their passion, launching headlong into searches for vintage 45s at flea markets and estate sales, and jumping down veritable rabbit holes to research the often-patchy backstories of their early 20th-century heroes. Spend some time with Son House’s 1930 sides, and you are apt to think nothing could be more powerful than that voice and that rhythmic attack. If you don’t hear portions of your life in that music, you probably can’t recognize yourself standing in front of a mirror.But the weird thing about the blues is that each time you think you’ve discovered an artist of matchless power, you happen upon another at the same level or even a level beyond. Loving the blues is like ascending a stairway; music that wants you to wallow, that makes an art of painful emotion, somehow draws you not just onward but upward.It’s the same, it seems, if you’re a blues musician. Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in the spring of 1913 and grew up on a plantation close to Clarksdale, Mississippi. His fluvial stage name indicated Waters’s trademark wit; no performer ever made the blues sound flows so smoothly as to touch on the urbane. Waters’s stage name worked as a nice contrast to that of his lifelong chief rival and foil, Chester Arthur Burnett, who was three years’ Waters senior, also from Mississippi—known to music history as the mighty, feral, Howlin’ Wolf.There are, of course, several strands of the blues, but the diehards usually focus on the acoustic version that came from the Delta. It’s not hard to understand why. There is something ghostly, ghastly, preternatural, elemental, and yet real, relatable, and life-affirming in the rudimentarily recorded sides by the likes of House, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, and the man who started it all, Charley Patton. Waters loved House and Robert Johnson, and started out as an acolyte, performing in their styles for that invaluable musical preservationist Alan Lomax and his Library of Congress series in 1941. Wolf was more of a Patton man, digging the force of the rhythm and the unbridled emotion in his idol’s scabrous vocals, which chill you no matter how many times you’ve heard them, like the first wind of winter clawing at the back of your neck.Alas, Waters, a capable but by no means massively compelling performer in the medium, was no Delta bluesman. Two years after those Library of Congress recordings, Waters lit out for Chicago, where the Wolf would later join him after cutting some exploratory sides in the new style of blues he was formulating at Sam Philips’s Sun Studios in Memphis. During the 1950s, in Old Chi, Messrs. Waters and Wolf gave life to a form of the blues that retained the evocative feel of the Delta, but rocked it up with jolts of electric energy and a more modern, less rural, more scuzzy sensibility. That music talked not so much of desolate crossroads under cold stars, but of the dizzing intersection where life, man, and machine commingle. And, as it turned out, it dawned on people who had the time, energy, and inclination to dance.The discographies of Waters and Wolf have been in various stages of disarray over the years, which is symptomatic of how the blues is still viewed in this country—as a subject little worth studying. Classical music has been an academic hallmark for centuries, and jazz has advanced over the past several decades to be recognized as America’s true native musical art form. That label is both simplistic and misleading, but the jazz canon has gained true intellectual cachet. Rock, too, has made up some ground, but a prejudice against the blues remains, as if it were too earthen, more the soundtrack to a fish fry or a drinking session than music to be analyzed, pored over, put forward on the mantel beside a Fitzgerald story, a Miles Davis record, a Jackson Pollock print.These two just-released and affordable sets redress some of those mental cataloging problems. The blues was always less of an album-based genre than either rock or jazz; it was the stuff of juke boxes, with individual cuts holding sway—in other words, the A and B sides of singles. But here we have the full run from each artist’s classic period, the albums, had there really been any. In this form, it is easier to see certain themes intertwining, even though styles rarely do.Waters is the professional, the singer/guitarist/band leader who functioned like a blues version of Count Basie. Most of his work has something of a pronounced gait to it, even a blast of machismo—courtesy of the pen of bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon—exemplified by the songs “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “I’m Ready”, and “Hoochie Coochie Man”, which established Waters’s stardom. These are rowdy, boastful numbers, with so much energy that when English bands like the Rolling Stones took to covering them, they’d seemingly imbibe some of that musical mojo by association. The coverers played them faster, as if their enthusiasm as fans outran their patience and cunning as musicians.Waters, with his pleasing voice, is at the center of this musical generation, but he was by no means the dominant force, as the Wolf so often was. Waters assembled a group that could stand alongside any of the 20th century’s greatest small units, whether we’re talking the Tommy-era Who, Miles Davis’s second Great Quintet, or the Emerson String Quartet. Like Basie, Waters realized that his true instrument was the band around him.And what a stacked deck we’re talking about in the mid-1950s prime years, with Elgin Evans or Fred Below—both of whom count among the genre’s best sticksmen—on drums, Dixon on bass, Jimmy Rogers providing muscular guitar work, and the brilliant Little Walter playing the harmonica. Few people have ever played anything at the level at which Walter played harmonica. We’re talking a degree of command comparable to Hendrix on his guitar, Gould with his piano, James Jamerson with his bass.Waters knew exactly what he had in Little Walter, and he also knew that the virtuoso was bound to strike out on his own at some point, so he got every last scrap of genius he could from him first. Waters wrote the 1950’s “Evans Shuffle” as a harmonica showcase, and Walter is a chromatic wonder on it, splitting notes, modulating mid-line, doing things with a mouth organ that one more readily associates with, say, Charlie Parker and his alto sax.The next year’s “Too Young to Know” is even better. Waters plucks at his strings like the guitar is a blues-accessorized violin, adding vibrato as the bridge approaches, and then announcing, like a compère, “All right! Little Walter!” Walter’s harmonica plays off of Water’s rubato inflections, and we have both bounce and solidity at once, rubber and glue, blues-style. Notice was being served by this Paganini of the harmonica: The blues may have been the music of inner-city beer halls and down-home get togethers, but here was a form of American chamber music. There may have been grime underfoot where you heard it, but any recording of music this stellar could be revisited again and again, and pay off intellectually as well as emotionally. For the first time since the Delta heyday, the blues functioned as legitimate art music, but a kind now primed to reach the masses—something that would have blown the collective minds of Patton, House, and Johnson.Two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, headed up the label where both Waters and Wolf made their best music. It was a gambit that didn’t last long, but there is not one duff cut in these years for Waters. A blues buff can ogle endlessly at the gems on display: “Mannish Boy”, “Forty Days and Forty Nights”, and perhaps above all, “Got My Mojo Working.” Waters touched on betrayal and lust in his songs, but the former was never so deep that you didn’t suspect that the relationships might eventually be put right again. As for lust, even in the likes of “I’m a Natural Born Lover”, Waters maintained a friendly sensuality rather than an outright lasciviousness. “Trouble No More”, cut in November 1955, might be Waters’s apex, with his own riff all but compelling you to rise and dance. Jimmy Rogers serves up tasty guitar licks as Muddy’s vocal is less genial than usual, as if to say, “Sure I’m dancing, but I’ve been wronged, and dancing or no, I’ll still pop you one.” He sounds tough here, like he’s channeling that Delta hoodoo.This is something the Wolf would have well understood; too bad, however, that the Chess Brothers did not think to replace Muddy’s motley, undisciplined group with a house unit. If the music of Muddy Waters is approachable, the Wolf’s could be downright intimidating. It was not about the business of inclusion and having a nice time, but rather about the darkest slices of life and the nether depths of the human condition.Wolf, who was even physically intimidating at 300 pounds, was in truth no rabble-rouser and always a sage businessman. He hit Chicago with wads of cash on him. He also came with a voice unlike any other, equipped with the coarsest grades of sandpaper, but capable of a crooning, wavering, wandering tone of shimmering beauty. This was the voice of the night, when the sky is so dark it shades to purple. And while his band as a whole couldn’t come close to beating Waters’s, Wolf did have his own stud of a musician in guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin invented much of the sonic vocabulary of British hard rock, blues rock, garage rock, and heavy metal. His instrument was a mess, welded together from various guitar bits and bobs, as if he’d followed the early Who around, picking up pieces of the guitars Daltrey and Townsend had smashed on stage. But he could produce a sound like hell opening its doors for business, with crazy barrages of distortion that must have seemed, were you of a certain age at the time, like a form of audio pornography, as if you weren’t supposed to partake of such things.Wolf was a sort of Wilt Chamberlain to Muddy Waters’s stolid Bill Russell, the tearaway with the flash and sizzle that comes from getting as deep as you can into every situation you encounter. He did the musical version of drinking life to the lees, to borrow a line from Homer. Muddy had consistency, but for sheer, bravura excitement, the Wolf’s run of singles hits the same level as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the Sex Pistols’ first clutch of demos. Wolf had his themes, and he worked the absolute hell out of them, because when one feels like one is in hell—a common vantage point for many in these songs—no respite draws nigh, and if pain can’t be staunched, it can at least be poured out.So it goes with works of art like “I Asked for Water”, “Moaning for My Baby”, “I’ve Been Abused”, and “You Gonna Wreck My Life.” In “Moaning”, Wolf’s voice might as well be the wind or the sea; it’s that elemental. If someone told me it existed as a sound long before the Wolf himself ever did, I wouldn’t doubt it. This is music every bit as eerie as anything cut on the Delta, pulled into a modern age by that crackling, over-loud Sumlin guitar. Wolf gets more pissed off as he recounts slight after slight, while Sumlin’s guitar lines become more distorted, and you start to feel like this duo is going to come knocking on your door demanding vengeance, though you haven’t done anything but listen along. That’s how real the Wolf feels, and he always feels that real. You’re just listening, but he’s walking, coming down the street, getting louder and louder, and he’s coming straight for you.The Wolf’s singles, on the whole, are faster, busier, and certainly louder than Waters’s numbers, but they also invite more introspection and channel more emotions. I’m put in mind of a letter that a listener sent to Orson Welles after the famed War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween of 1938, saying that while he knew rationally that Martians weren’t actually invading Earth, he couldn’t but believe otherwise while listening to Welles’s voice, and was thoroughly relieved to find the world intact at the program’s conclusion. Wolf’s most intense songs function the same way. They envelop and transport you. You find yourself somewhere else staring down someone’s cheating wife who has just become your own, or dealing with a former friend who has made a most compelling case that kith ain’t kin, and if blood isn’t involved you best always keep an eye out. One might think, then, that this is the blues as man-alone-on-an-island, but that would be wrong. There’s too much passion in the Wolf’s music for a mere island to hold. This is the sound of experiencing, partaking, resuming, re-trying, getting off the mat, getting knocked back down again, and then surging forward with revived devotion to living fully.Wolf’s lyrics are typically recursive, like cheat-sheet versions of Waters’s efforts, with less distance between words and feeling, like piping-hot shots of some liquor that goes straight to the core of the listener. The Willie Dixon number, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, taped in late 1961, is a good example. It lofts in some wit as the Wolf describes all the bad omens landing around him. These would daunt other men, but not the Wolf. Perhaps he’s cocky here because he’s backed by one of Sumlin’s all-time great guitar riffs, but all the same:
Well, I ain’t superstitious, black cat just cross my trailWell, I ain’t superstitious, oh the black cat just cross my trailDon’t sweep me with no broom, I might get put in jailWhen my right hand itches, I gets money for sureWhen my right hand itches, I gets money for sureBut when my left eye jumps, somebody’s got to go
The devil himself, that hellhound who was on Robert Johnson’s trail, could spring up for some fresh dickering, and this Wolf, this wide-striding wonder, would box his ears until he retreated back into the ground. Wolf sings with a touch of mirth in his voice, like he’s incorporating some of Waters’s stylistic touches, helping the blues build upon earlier versions of itself, just like we, as people, do.Sometimes I wonder if some of the blues’ difficulty in garnering the same scholarly attention as classical, jazz, and even rock, lies in the fact that it can be too much like us. In its usual simplicity and economy of chords, it offers up to player and listener alike a musical structure so elemental that it puts a premium on the lyrics. And those lyrics force us to look inward rather than away, to introspect rather than project. Looking away is almost always easier, but it is a direction from which we have less to gain. Blues artists at the level of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf do a lot of heavy lifting for you. They are our muscle men of the night, when black shades to purple.Music is supposed to be less than or different from that. It’s supposed to entertain and buoy us, not make us wince and weep. Most music is like the smells and sounds of a sunlit kitchen where a cook makes breakfast for the expectant; the blues is the broom sweeping out the mess after everyone’s done and we’re left alone past dusk. The blues, as someone said, “lives upside your head.” Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to study.