“Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake – on your way to the barber shop?” – Howlin’ Wolf.
Nothing moves in a series of completely straight lines, especially not music. We categorize, label, divide it into genres. We identify and separate superficial aspects of sonority or lyrical content to make music understandable, all the time searching for some missing immutable connection. We’re not unaware, we’re surrounded by search engines, we’ve always been masters of location and with such an abundance of music available we need some way to find what we’re looking for. At some point, though, anyone will tell you that you’ve got to go off the map.
In this case the map we must leave behind is the canonized story of the development of the Blues. Music journalists and historians like to draw their straight lines up the Mississippi delta and end it in Chicago and call it the Blues, tracing its development from performer to performer, allowing for occasional Piedmont picker or Texan, stacking their R. Crumb Heroes of the Blues cards in a neat and perfect order, so to speak. But something funky (pardon the pun) happened in the late 1960’s and the increasing prominence of the electrified Blues- Rock played predominately by white, and often British, musicians began to overwhelm the blues market. As this generation of blues musicians seemingly co-opted an American folk-art a different breed of young talented musicians influenced by blues were playing an increasing electric bass guitar driven concoction of R&B, Gospel, and Soul music. It was, in it’s way, a logical progression but there seems to be something missing. There are many steps from Charley Patton to SRV or Joe Bonamassa if you choose to follow that map, but there are also a lot of interesting scenic views and stories if you choose not to. The story of how these two records, which can be thought of as two equal halves a larger whole, came to be is a curious side note that can change how you see the development of Blues- Rock. How two established blues greats, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf ,came to make some of the least critically appreciated Psychedelic Blues-Rock albums of all time.
By about 1967, give or take a year or two, the blues revival of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band ilk had given way to the psych-blues of Cream, Hendrix, etc, and future dads everywhere were probably getting really excited. While the second generation of rock n’ roll musicians were insistently and publicly becoming more devoted to American Folk music and creating ‘Blues-Rock’ or ‘Country-Rock’ or ‘Folk-Rock’, Rock N’ Roll’s grandparents were still evolving, albeit under the radar. As a result of this change of the times Chess’ roster of incredible talents from the latter days of the Chicago blues scene were firmly encouraged by the Chess brothers to update their sound. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf did not take kindly to this stylistic shift, understandably so given that they had spent the better part of three decades developing their styles with a string of hit records. Waters with his smooth, spot on electric playing and cheeky vocal delivery, The Wolf with his brash unfettered emotional howl and his hard blues playing. These recipes had secured them the position as the top selling blues artists in the late 1940’s, 1950’s, and early 1960’s, and though the sales were declining they saw no reason to change the styles they had begun to so closely identify themselves with. It was the blues after all, or was it?
Early American musicians didn’t draw the distinctions the way we do between country, blues, bluegrass, western cowboy song, folk, or Vaudevillian pop; the ingredients that formed the turn of the century’s almost Cambrian music explosion that became Jazz, Pop, R&B, Swing, Country & Western, Blues, and eventually Rock N’ Roll. It’s clear, however, that performers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf did. They had a definition of the blues, and examining their catalogs it becomes pretty clear that their idea of the blues was the predominantly straight 4/4, walking bass line , and sexual frustration involved in the work of the prolific songwriter Willie Dixon and closely identified with Chicago. That’s not to imply that there was any lack of substance or musicality in their blues, but there is certainly a distinction one can draw between Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Skip James etc. and the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that goes beyond geography and time. Early blues music explored many time signatures, scales, and subjects many of which became the foundation of the previously discussed quintessential American forms. As these genres developed into separate entities, aided by the invention of the phonograph and the industry to sell them, there became distinctions that may not have previously existed. As a genre the Blues had come to be defined as the 12-bar songwriting style of W.C. Handy, or the aforementioned Willie Dixon, interpreted by performers solo or backed by a small band, the larger the band got or the more changes made to the song structure you began to enter R&B territory or the otherworldly land of Jazz, which most certainly were no longer considered to be the Blues.
Much in the way that certain Satchmo at Symphony Hall stands out as a definition of an immutable concept, on these records the idea of Psychedelic Blues music is presented as the evolution of the Chicago blues style that it truly is and not the invention of Jimi Hendrix, who defined it. On this record the wail of the guitar is explicitly turned into crying via the use of the Wah pedal, the bass grooves more like Hard-Bop than Dixie and the drums manage to hit everywhere but the beat sometimes. It was blues musicians turning into something else, something that lead Hendrix toward Band of Gypsys which lead us toward something new. While the new vanguard of the Blues would go back to a perceived time before the invention of this style of playing, presumably overwhelmed by the shadow of Hendrix, there was an out growth of this music that continued to evolve and become the fully developed 1970’s sound of Funk.
To hear these hear these blues men in the setting they preferred check out:
Muddy Waters- Mud in your Ear: Just re-issued this month this album features Waters’ old band that Leonard Chess fired. Waters’ plays a more supportive role on this album than his others but lends it a sense of backyard fun that is sorely lacking from Electric Mud. There’s a great review of this in the new issue of MOJO, and lacks attention almost anywhere else.
Howlin’ Wolf- The London Sessions: In the late ’60’s there was a running line of albums called “Super Sessions”, this is one of them. Howlin’ Wolf is teamed up with Clapton, Steve Winwood, from Blind Faith and a number of talented rock musicians sit in a few sessions or the overdubs. A pretty solid listen.