Muddy Waters’s legendary 1964 acoustic album, Folk Singer, didn’t appear as a standalone CD until the audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab issued it three decades after its release. Reviewing the disc, Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine mused, “There aren’t too many blues albums that qualify as audiophile recordings, but Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer surely does. A wonderfully intimate session, it delivers Waters’ voice in all its power and subtlety while rendering his guitar work — most of it slide playing, all of it acoustic — with such vivid realism, you would think you were sitting in the studio….”
Considine’s parochial observation about the lack of audiophile blues recordings aside1, there’s no doubt that Folk Singer is a landmark artistic and audiophile release. Birthed by the desire of Waters’s label, Chess Records, to capitalize on the record-buying habits of the white college students fueling the folk revival of the early-’60s, Folk Singer seemed to please nobody at the time of its release. Record buyers ignored it, while traditionalist publications like Down Beat panned it.
But something changed in subsequent decades. Today, Folk Singer is seen as a both an artistic and a sonic triumph. It landed at number 280 on the 2003 edition of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and dropped only two spots in the magazine’s next installment nine years later. Folk Singer also has become a standard hi-fi demonstration disc. It’s repeatedly been remastered and reissued by audiophile labels in both digital and analog formats. In its fortieth anniversary issue, The Absolute Sound magazine went so far as to include Folk Singer in its list of the 40 greatest recordings of all time, a list dominated by classical and jazz recordings. As the same publication put it in 1994:
The recording offers a masterful blend of direct and reflected sound — it abounds with studio ambience, while at the same time capturing all of the detail and dynamic shadings of both Muddy’s voice and the guitars. Individual plucked notes explode with intensity, and when Waters reaches back and instantaneously raises his voice from a soft whisper to a gut-shaking moan, you’ll think your mid-bass driver — along with your heart — will break free of its surround and land in your lap. All of this is presented on a gigantic, studio-derived soundstage which lets you “see” the room, the walls, the participants, and makes you feel your own personal connection to the blues — something from which no man is free. No collection should be without this recording.
For good reason then, Folk Singer is the subject of the thirteenth installment of “The Best Version Of…”
In pursuit of a facile conception of “authenticity,” critics and fans often inquire as to whether a given blues artist truly “lived the blues.”2 Born in the Mississippi Delta in 1913, McKinley Morganfield endured enough tragedy and hardship early in life to render such inquiries as the voyeuristic celebration of another’s suffering that they are. Beyond the everyday poverty and racism that characterized life in the Jim Crow South, Morganfield dealt with the death of his mother and absence of his father at a young age. Raised by his grandmother on the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Morganfield’s early life was defined by the rhythms of sharecropping, an existence little different from the slavery that Reconstruction promised to eradicate, but which the reconstituted forced of white supremacy worked to continue.
Nicknamed “Muddy” by his grandmother due to his propensity for playing in the Delta’s silt-filled waters, Morganfield — who would later append “Water,” then “Waters,” to his childhood nickname — began working on the Stovall Plantation outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, at an early age. “Oh, I started out young,” Waters remembered in an interview with Link Wyler and Russ Ragsdale. “They handed me a cotton sack when I was about eight years old. Give me a little small one, tell me to fill it up. Really that never was my speed. I never did like the farm, but I was out there with my grandmother, didn’t want to get away from around her too far.”
Denied an education by the twin evils of segregation and sharecropping, which forced Muddy, like countless other black children, to place his family’s survival — and the white plantation owner’s riches — above his education, music provided Muddy an escape from the drudgeries of the farm. “When I was around three years old, I was beaten’ on bucket tops and tin cans, Muddy told Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer in 1978:
Anything with a sound I would try to play it. I’d even take my stick and beat on the ground tryin’ to get a new sound. And whatever I beat on, I’d be hummin’ my little baby song along with it. My first instrument, which a lady give me, and some kids soon broke for me, was an old squeeze-box — an accordion. The next thing I had in my hand was a jew’s-harp. When I was about seven, I started playing the harmonica, and when I got about thirteen I was playing it very good. I should never have give it up!
Muddy’s grandmother bought a hand-cranked phonograph machine, and Muddy picked up records by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, and Roosevelt Sykes, among others. But much of Muddy’s musical education came from the Delta. “At that time,” Waters told Paul Oliver, “seem like everybody could play some kind of instrument and there were so many fellers playing in the jukes ‘round Clarksdale I can’t remember them all. But the best we had to my ideas was Sonny House. He used to have a neck of a bottle over his little finger, touch the strings with that and make them sing. That’s where I got the idea from.” Indeed, it was Son House who ultimately inspired Muddy to pick up both the guitar and the slide. As he recounted to Palmer, “When I was seventeen, I switched to the guitar and put the harp down. I sold our last horse for the first guitar I had. Made fifteen dollars for him. Gave my grandmother $7.50. I kept $7.50 and paid about $2.50 for my guitar.”
As his skills developed, Muddy began supplementing his meager sharecropping income by playing at pool halls and bars in Clarksdale, as well as moonshine- and gambling-fueled house parties (including Muddy’s own) closer to home. “I worked for fifty cents a day from sun to sun,” Waters recalled to Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall:
That means fifteen, sixteen hours a day. But on the sideline I loved my guitar. I would get out at night and do that guitar. The blacks have their parties, hustle a little liquor, get some things together, and I used to play for those peoples. They’d come get me on time but they wouldn’t bring me back on time. And lot of mornings I get home and change my little ironed blue jeans and put on my cotton-picking clothes and go to the field and work. Done picked cotton all day, play all night long, then pick cotton all day the next day before I could get a chance to sleep.
Always hustling, Muddy further padded his wallet by trapping and making moonshine. But Muddy’s vice throughout his life was less the liquor that fueled Delta parties than the women who’d populate his most famous songs, beginning with a brief marriage when he was all of eighteen. “I left my first little wife, who’s dead now, God bless her, for another woman,” he reflected to Palmer:
I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me. I was kind of a wild cat, man. I’d stay with her awhile and then come back and go away, and then I took this other woman from the little town next to my little town and we went and caught a train for St. Louis. But I wasn’t used to the big city and didn’t like it, so we went back, and I told my wife, “Hey, I done get married, you can move out.” What a mess will country peoples do! Later I brought this woman to Chicago with me, and we couldn’t get along no kind of way. I had to get rid of her. Well, I was crazy, that’s all.
Long before Muddy made his way to Chicago, his musical reputation preceded him. The Delta blues milieu that Muddy ran in included the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Tommy Johnson, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Big Joe Williams, many of whom made their way north and recorded while Muddy remained an unrecorded back in Mississippi. As Palmer noted, “It’s important to remember that Muddy was already an established bluesman when Robert Johnson made the first of his own keening, driven recordings in 1936. In fact, Muddy was already known in Chicago. Willie Dixon, who settled in the Windy City that same year, remembers that when talk got around to serious blues singing, people from the Delta invariably brought up Muddy.”
Despite this, Muddy didn’t record until serendipity knocked on his door on August 31, 1941, in the form of musicologist John Wesley Work III and folklorist Alan Lomax. Often overlooked in the story of Muddy’s discovery, the idea for the trip originated with Work, a professor at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. In search of funding, Work reached out to the Library of Congress, where Lomax worked. Together, they set out “to explore objectively and exhaustively the musical habits of a single Negro community in the Delta, to find out and describe the function of music in the community, to ascertain the history of music in the community, and to document adequately the cultural and social backgrounds for music in the community,” as Lomax put it in a report to the Library.
Work and Lomax recorded Waters and his acoustic guitar on a hulking 350-pound “portable” disc recorder, then played back the results for Waters. It was a transformational moment. “When he played back the first song, I sounded just like anybody’s records,” Waters told Palmer. “Man, you don’t know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on, he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, ‘I can do it, I can do it.’”
Despite the confidence boost, Waters continued working on the plantation and frequenting the local music scene as if nothing had happened. Lomax returned in 1942 for a further recording session with Muddy, and some of his and Work’s recordings of Waters made it onto the 1942 release of Folk Music of the United States from Records in the Archive of American Folk Song, marking Waters’s first appearance on record. Muddy’s reputation was further enhanced by appearances on “King Biscuit Time,” the groundbreaking blues show on nearby KFFA, which was founded in 1941.
None of this, though, convinced Waters to leave the Delta. It wasn’t until the manager of the Stovall Plantation angrily rejected Waters’s request for a raise from 22.5 to 25 cents per hour. According to biographer Robert Gordon, Muddy made up his mind then and there, and two days later he was on a train for Chicago with nothing but a ticket, a single suit, and his Sears Silvertone guitar.
With that decision, Muddy joined the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who fled Mississippi for Chicago in the years between WWI and WWII as part of the “Great Migration.” With family and friends already in Chicago and a tight wartime labor market, Waters immediately landed a series of manual labor jobs, all of which paid more than he could’ve ever hoped to earn sharecropping. But each was little more than a necessary evil, keeping Muddy housed and fed while pursuing his dream. “I never did go get good jobs,” he told McKee and Chisenhall. “I’d get them little old cheap jobs because I didn’t ever keep one too long. I got a job at the paper mill [loading] those forklift trucks, and then I got a little job workin’ for a firm that made parts for radios.”
Muddy soon ingratiated himself into Chicago’s South Side blues scene and began playing house parties and clubs around the city. Compared to the country quiet of Mississippi, the raucous urbanity of Chicago necessitated a change in Muddy’s music. “We were playing our little clubs and a ‘cue-stick’ [acoustic] guitar wouldn’t answer there, not in a liquor club,” Muddy said, as quoted by Gordon:
My uncle Joe [Grant] had been in Chicago a long time and everybody played those electric guitars. He told me I ought to play one, and he bought me one. It wasn’t no name-brand electric guitar, but it was a built-in electric guitar, not a pickup just stuck on. It gave me so much trouble that that’s probably why I forgot the name. Every time I looked around I had to have it fixed. Finally it got stoled from me in one of them little neighborhood clubs, and the next one I got me was a Gretsch, and that’s the one I used on all my early hits…. It was a very different sound [from acoustic], not just louder….
In 1946, Waters record his first commercial session for an independent producer, though he wasn’t credited. Later that year, he recorded some tracks for Columbia, but they languished in the vaults. In the meantime, Waters began playing at clubs like the Zanzibar with guitarist Jimmy Rogers, harmonica player Little Walter, and drummer “Baby Face” Leroy, forging a sound that would become synonymous with Chicago blues.
Waters got his big break in late-1947. Thanks to happenstance encounter with Aristocrat Records’ talent scout at the musicians’ union hall and the recommendation of pianist Sunnyland Slim, Waters as invited to play on a session for Aristocrat, a label with new owners Leonard and Phil Chess, who’d later give the label their family name. Though the first two songs Waters cut for Chess — in the piano-heavy style favored by Leonard — flopped, Muddy now had his foot in the door.
In early-1948, he convinced Chess to let him record driving electric versions of two songs he’d recorded on the plantation, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home.” When this single hit stores, it became Aristocrat’s bestseller and established Waters as a bona fide blues star. “The little joint I was playing in doubled its business when the record came out,” he told Palmer. “Bigger joints started looking for me. It was summer when that record came out, and I would hear it walking along the street, driving along the street. One time coming home about two or three o’clock in the morning I heard it coming from way upstairs somewhere and it scared me. I thought I had died.”
The next decade would represent Waters’s commercial peak. Between 1950 and 1958, Muddy placed 14 singles in the top ten of the Billboard Rhythm & Blues charts. But the segregated record market and the limited appeal of the blues even among African Americans combined to constrain the commercial horizons for a blues star like Waters. “1954 was his big year,” Peter Guralnick noted in Rolling Stone in 1971. “He had three records in the Top Ten, including two of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You.’ If it had stayed a race market he probably would have remained a star for another decade.”
But the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the late-’50s further frustrated the attempts of Muddy and other blues artists to make it into the white mainstream. “Rock and roll kind of took over there for a while,” James Cotton, Waters’s harmonica player and bandleader from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s, told Gordon. “There was weekends that we couldn’t get jobs. Me and Muddy would get in the station wagon and drive around and listen to rock and roll. We wouldn’t go in the clubs, just listen to what’s going on. Lloyd Price was happening, ‘Ain’t It a Shame,’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Elvis Presley.”
Whatever Muddy’s fans lacked in number, they made up for in dedication. “Only a few artists,” Billboard noted in 1955, “such as Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington, Memphis Slim, and B. B. King have what is known in pop stores as a standby market — that group which will buy an artist rather than the tune.” Even as rock ‘n’ roll rose in prominence, many of these dedicated fans would stick with him. Among those fans were six lads in London who decided to borrow the title of one of Muddy’s songs, “Rollin’ Stone,” for their nascent band’s name. In time, The Rolling Stones, as well as the larger British blues revival of which they were a part, would provide Waters with a level of name recognition that seemed destined to elude him.
However, when Waters recorded Folk Singer in late-1963 at Chess’s Tel-Mar Studios, the Stones had not yet resold their anglicized version of American blues back to U.S. audience. Instead, Folk Singer was Chess’s attempt to capitalize on a different revival taking place stateside.
Many of the white Baby Boomers who’d swooned over Elvis and Muddy’s labelmate Chuck Berry in the late-’50s were now swelling the country’s college campuses, and they wanted a more serious, intellectual music to demonstrate their maturity. They found it in folk music, a style as unaffected as its young fans were pretentious.
The line between folk and blues was always porous. The retrospective label applied to the rural, acoustic artists that populated Lomax’s Library of Congress releases and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seemed to have less to do with specific stylistic delineations than with the race of the artist. Muddy’s plantation recordings, after all, were released as part of the Library’s Folk Music series. If the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were being fêted by audiences at the Newport Folk Festivals, why shouldn’t Muddy get their attention, too?
As Folk Singer’s co-producer Ralph Bass put it in the album’s liner notes:
Muddy Waters – Folk Singer. I suppose those who are familiar with Muddy will say, “Muddy’s a blues singer.” Sure Muddy’s a blues singer, but what is a folk singer? Somewhere along the line, record companies discovered they could sell more records by appealing to a broader buying public and labelling country and blues “folk music.” The market is flooded, most of it pseudo folk, whether it be pop, country, or blues. Folk schools have cropped up everywhere and for a nominal fee will make a folk singer out of you in ten easy lessons. We should treasure the few real folk singers and at least make the distinction between the real and the pseudo. So whether we label Muddy a blues singer or folk singer is not important. What is important is that we give full recognition to the greatness of Muddy Waters as one of the last of his breed.
In that sense, Folk Singer was less an obvious commercial stab — even if both Chess and Muddy clearly hoped it would sell — than an attempt to secure for Muddy the attention from folk fans that he clearly deserved.
While the coming British Invasion soon would convince Waters to stick with the electric guitar, he never hesitated to express his preference for acoustic music. “You get more pure thing out of an acoustic,” Muddy explained in a 1966 radio interview. “I prefer an acoustic.”
It was a conviction he continued to hold as time passed. As Guralnick noted in Rolling Stone five years later:
[Muddy] prefers, too, the “true sound” of the acoustic guitar and would, he says, if he had the choice, return to playing as a solo performer. But it was necessary in order to be heard in the noisy clubs and taverns of Chicago to take up an amplified instrument. And it was necessary, to achieve any kind of success in the big- band oriented rhythm and blues market, to put together some kind of group.
Given the above, it’s hard to imagine that Chess had to sell Waters on the concept for Folk Singer. Despite that, many reviewers and writers have claimed, as Stephen Millward put it, that “[Chess’s] leading producer talent scout Ralph Bass persuaded Muddy, against his better nature, to make [Folk Singer].”
This common impression draws primarily on the Bass’s liner notes, which use the word “skeptical.” “When Muddy was approached with the idea of making an LP depicting the blues without any stigma of commercialism attached to it, he was skeptical at first as to our intent,” he wrote, “but when I told him I wanted him to portray the blues as he wanted, he agreed to provided he could get his old guitar out of mothballs so he could accompany himself.”
But given Muddy’s preference for acoustic music, it’s hard to believe that Muddy was skeptical about anything besides the commercial viability of an acoustic album. It seemed that, if anything, Muddy viewed the electric urban blues sound that he pioneered as the artistic compromise. “Muddy had never aspired to play with urban flash,” Gordon wrote in Can’t Be Satisfied, “basking instead in the slow country blues feel, keeping it as his foundation even as he modernized it. It was Muddy’s own deal with the devil: he left his native community but gained a larger one, a wealthier one that could purchase the nostalgia and authenticity of his music.”
The first step in recording Folk Singer was selecting the appropriate accompaniment for Muddy.
Besides Muddy, the most important contributor to Folk Singer was Willie Dixon, who would serve as bassist and co-producer for the session. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1915, Dixon moved to Chicago in 1936. By the early-’50s, Dixon was arguably the most important member of the Chess Records family, serving as an all-purpose songwriter, producer, arranger, and performer, among other tasks. As Dixon recalled in his autobiography:
Chess gave me a contract, and this contract didn’t have too much of a stipulation on it. They insisted that I assist them in everything they’d do…. When I first met the Chess brothers, I thought this was going to be a beautiful thing for me to execute some of what I thought I knew. They let me have a free run with just about everything because Leonard used to admit that he didn’t know as much about it as he thought I did. He treated me with respect, about as much as the average black folks was getting, and that wasn’t too much anywhere. My job was to assist. I did everything from packing records to sweeping the floor to answer the telephone to making out orders, but they weren’t giving me much of a pay thing. They promised to give me so much a week against my royalties and then every week, I’d have to damn near fight or beg for the money....3
Dixon’s role at Chess expanded drastically after he convinced Leonard to let Waters record Dixon’s song, “Hoochie Coochie Man.” “‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ was selling so good Leonard wanted me to come up with another one right away...,” Dixon remembered. “After a while Chess got to the place where they would always depend on me to have a song when somebody else ran short of a song. I’d write for any artist that Chess had come in, and a lot of times I was doing a little sidetrackin’ stuff with other companies.”
By the Folk Singer sessions, Dixon was the point person for many Chess sessions. As Positive Feedback’s Wayne Goins wrote in his thorough study of Folk Singer:
Willie Dixon was the man who knew the music from a players’ standpoint and probably had just as much if not more influence than anyone in the room — he obviously was well-respected by all involved. He was the floor general, and all the musicians acknowledged his experience and authority on the recording room floor — much more than they did Leonard Chess, who often threw his weight around in ways that, more times than not, only served to aggravate the primary artists and sidemen. Willie Dixon was, by all accounts, a mediator, moderator, spokesman, and facilitator of practically every aspect of the recording process — composing, arranging, producing, performing, and directing the sessions. It is without question that he was absolutely essential to the success of this particular session — Muddy Waters relied on him for many things.
While Dixon didn’t always receive the credit he deserved, he was integral to the selection and arrangement of songs on his sessions. As he told Living Blues magazine in 1988:
Well, Leonard didn’t know one thing from another. He’d accept the other people’s word for it if it sound good…. He would always ask me about, “What’s about this or that or the other.” Different questions about producin’ the thing. He had a lot of confidence in what I was sayin’. Everything that I had involved myself in turned out pretty good. So he accepted it. Why, up until the last, he always said I was the only one that was 90 percent right (laughter). Because a lot of guys would just say — because he’s the boss — “Ya see this is a good tune.” I was always, “Hey man, I don’t like this, it won’t sell,” or something.
Dixon elaborated on his role in material selection in his autobiography:
All the time I had at Chess was spent working with the artists. The artists would come in and the first thing, they would be sent to me: “See Willie and what he thinks about it.” They told me if I thought it was a good thing to let them know and get it together and they would decide whether they would record it or not. They were going to do what they wanted to, anyway, but I would kind of approve them first. I was doing a pretty good job at it, but you had a lot of yes men around then. If I didn’t like it, I’d say I didn’t, and they didn’t like me because I would speak frank.
As a producer, Dixon focused on making the artist comfortable with the selection of the material and the session’s mechanics:
In producin,’ you feel, at its best level, if you can get the artist in the mood, that’s one of the things. Get ‘em in the mood to see what the song say and how the song feel, and if you have a bit of experience about some of the things that he singin’ about, why, this inspires him a bit to do his best.
Dixon also had firm ideas about how the sessions he oversaw should sound. As Chess’s first engineer Malcolm Chisholm remembered:
Will [Dixon] would tell me what he wanted in terms of the sound. He would sit besides me at the console and, if I wasn’t capturing what he was looking for, he would tap me on the shoulder and instruct me. Will’s ‘taps’ were very impressive! This went on for eight or nine sessions until I understood what he was trying to achieve in the mix, and then he stopped tapping me on the shoulder. He was a good friend, and I liked Will about as much as anyone I ever met.
Alongside Dixon on bass, Waters would play guitar on the Folk Singer sessions. It was the first time in years that Waters, who’d spent much of the past decade focused on singing and leading his band, would lay down guitar tracks.
Who’d support Waters as a second guitarist was an open question. But Muddy turned to 27-year-old Buddy Guy. Not only had Guy not yet established himself as one of the premier guitarists of his generation, but he also wasn’t the type of guitarist that Leonard Chess had in mind for Folk Singer. “Chess heard about college kids buying folk music,” Guy recalled to Alan di Perna:
So they called Muddy in and wanted to rush one of those records out on him. They gave him a train ticket and told him to go down south and find some of those older guys who play that kind of [acoustic folk blues] stuff. And Muddy said, “Set the motherfuckin’ session up for tomorrow.” I got it. They thought Muddy was gonna call some old-time guy and put him on a train. When Leonard Chess came in that morning and saw me sitting there, that guy called me a motherfucker so many times I almost cried and left the studio.
As Guy recounted in his autobiography, Muddy put his foot down when Leonard continued to object to Guy. “You want the old music,” Muddy told Chess. “Well, this young man can play that old music in his sleep. Pull him off this session and I’m going home to sleep.”
Eventually, Chess backed down, and in the end he was impressed Guy’s playing. “Damn,” Guy recalls Leonard saying, “you can sound like an old fart, can’t you?”
Despite being more than two decades younger than Waters and Dixon, Guy had the same sharecropping as experience as Muddy during his youth in Lettsworth, Louisiana. Also like Muddy, Guy moved from the rural South to Chicago, taking a job in a factory before landing a contract with Cobra Records, then Chess. Where Guy differed from Waters was that Waters himself, alongside Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf, served as Buddy’s musical north stars. “I loved these people,” Guy recounted in his autobiography. “But I loved them from far off. I dreamed of seeing them, but they didn’t come to Baton Rouge.”
Buddy’s move to Chicago in 1957 was inspired by Muddy’s own journey. But for his first five or six months in the Windy City, Guy struggled to gain recognition. However, just when Buddy was considering calling it quits and moving back home, Waters showed up at the club where Guy was playing and encouraged him to keep at it, telling him, “Tonight you found a new home.” On Folk Singer, Guy was recording with a hero that he saw a father figure.
Though Guy was to become known for his fuzzed-out electric heroics, he had a deep understanding of and passion for the acoustic blues that the Folk Singer session sought to capture. As he wrote in his autobiography:
When we was young, we heard those guitars that are now known as acoustic. They were played soft because they were played in a room or on a porch where three or four or five people were gathered. Didn’t need to be loud. The blues came through them in a beautiful tone — straight from the heart of the guitarist to the hearts of the folk listening. The softness of those notes did something to the soul. I’d say it soothed the soul. Now come on up to Chicago and — Lord, have mercy — those guitars are plugged into the walls and screaming loud as sirens. The sound is coming out an amplifier. It needs to be loud because the barrooms in Chicago are loud…. It wasn’t nothing more than country blues jacked up with big-city electricity.
The final instrumental piece in the Folk Singer lineup was drummer Clifton James. Easily the most retrospectively overlooked musician on the session, James was then best known as Bo Diddley’s drummer and the originator of the “Bo Diddley beat.” Like Guy, James was twenty years younger than Waters. Besides his work with Diddley and Waters, James would perform or record with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor, among others, before retiring from music in the 1980s.
Folk Singer was cut in Chess’s own studio, opened in 1957 and located at 120 South Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. According to the definitive studio guidebook, Jim Cogan and William Clark’s Temples of Sound, the Chess brothers tasked engineer Jack Wiener with gutting building and designing the studio from the ground up. It was the first time the 22-year-old Wiener had designed a studio, though he’d learned from Bill Putnam, the legendary owner and designer of both Universal Recording and United Western Recorders.
Wiener worked to make the most of the long, narrow space. The first floor was turned into a storefront for the Chess label (which included a reception area that Cogan and Clark liken to that of a dentist), offices for Leonard and Phil, and a packing and shipping area. The second floor became the key musical space. Twin staircases led, respectively, to the studio and the control room. (These staircases became a point of contention. Intentionally or not, they recreated the spatial segregation of Chicago, with the mostly black musicians using one staircase and the mostly white producers and engineers using the other.)
The studio measured approximately 20 by 37, with 17-foot high ceilings. Modeling the space after Putnam’s Universal, Weiner covered the wood floor with two inches of cork and concrete on top. He also floated the walls on springs to guard against vibrations. Nine panels on the south wall of the studio could be opened or closed to change the size and reflectivity of the space. Engineer Ron Malo, who’d move from Motown to Chess in 1959, called Weiner’s studio “an exceptional piece of engineering…a room within a room, adjustable walls, state of art microphones, and so on.” He elaborated in a 1981 interview with Modern Recording & Music’s Tom Lubin:
Chess Records’ 2120 South Michigan Studios were built in a standard 20-foot store front. But we needed a stairway, so that meant the studio could only be 15 feet wide. Fortunately, it had a high ceiling. Acoustically it was a good studio. It had a poured concrete floor over two inches of cork — the floor was floating — and multiple Pyro walls…. Pyro…is hollow poured plaster in four-inch-thick blocks about one foot by four feet, or so. You would build two of these walls and separate them by an air space. On the inner surfaces you mounted spring clips and then attached gypsum board to the clips. You then had a spring wall for low-frequency absorption, while on the inner surface you just built some fiberglass traps, or something like that. Most of the RCA studios were built that way.
The control room initially featured a Putnam-designed Universal console and Ampex 250 two-track tape machines. Sometime in the early-’60s, Chess’s new engineer Ron Malo updated the control room to multitrack and added both more soundproofing and a separate vocal booth to the studio. According to Malo, Chess was the first U.S. studio to convert to four tracks. “We had to deaden it down when we went to four-track and eight-track to get more separation,” Malo told Guralnick in 1991. “It had angled walls and adjustable louvers in the walls.”
The final, crucial feature of Chess Studios was its basement’s echo chambers. As in other classic studios, Weiner converted two bare cement-walled rooms in 2120’s basement into echo chambers. Signals from the studio console would run down from the control room to an amplifier on one side of the echo chamber, which would then be recorded by an RCA 77 ribbon microphone on the other side of the chamber and run back up to the console.
In Temples of Sound, Cogan and Clark group Chess recordings into four categories based on sonics: “The early years of 1948 through 1957 (mostly, if not all, recorded at Universal); the early 2120 days of 1957 to 1960 (mostly engineered by Chisholm); the years between 1960 and 1967; and, finally, those records done at the wane of Chess in its new space around the corner from 2120 at the 321 East 21st Street studio.” Folk Singer falls into the third period, which is the one that Cogan and Clark highlight as the standout era. “The records made at 2120 between 1960 and 1967 are not only raw,” they write, “they are among the most high-fidelity recordings of the era.” Not just Cogan and Clark, but also Chisholm, give Malo credit for the quality of this era’s albums. “Ron Malo was an exceptional engineer,” Chisholm told Cogan and Clark, “but he was a total control freak.”
While it’s known that Folk Singer was recorded in September of 1963, the exact recording dates are lost to history. According to Goins, Folk Singer was recorded in one take. This contention is supported by Michael Ruppli’s The Chess Labels: A Discography, which records only one take number per track. However, this seems to conflict with both Dixon’s penchant for cutting multiple takes of most tracks and the fact that, according to Guy, he was recruited for the session the night before. On the other hand, by most accounts Waters’s performances varied little from take-to-take, and Dixon liked for artists to be well-rehearsed before tape started rolling.
There’s no doubt Folk Singer was cut live in the studio, which comported both with the album’s concept and Malo’s preferences. “I love ‘live.’ The business needs more ‘live’ performances,” he told Lubin. “I don’t necessarily mean ‘live’ in-person, but performing ‘live’ in the studio. I know there is a difference in making a hit record between a mechanically- concocted, layered record and a ‘live’ performance. The odds are in your favor in a ‘live’ performance.”
The track list for Folk Singer includes six Waters originals, Dixon’s “My Captain,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues standard “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” and Mississippi-born Chicago bluesman John Temple’s “Big Leg Woman.”
The album opens with the mellow “My Home Is in the Delta.” The track begins with Waters’s acoustic in the center. James’s drums are panned left alongside Dixon’s upright bass, while Guy’s acoustic is panned far right. With Dixon and James provide the track’s foundation, the two guitarists — Waters plays slide and Guy picks — trade licks throughout “Delta.”
The first lines sung by Waters are autobiographical:
Well my home’s in the Delta,
Way out on that farmer’s road.
Now you know I’m living in Chicago,
And people, I sure do hate to go.
Waters whoops and howls, delivers spoken asides, and exercises the full range of his legendary voice, with the reverb from Chess’s basement echo chamber accentuating every inflection.
While panned by some observers, the reverb used on both vocals and instruments throughout Folk Singer does little to detract from the album’s sonic perfection. It’s part of the Chess sound, and experienced label artists like Waters and Dixon undoubtedly knew how to play off of the echo, incorporating it into their performances. As Goins notes:
The thing about the reverb on this album is that there are degrees of it across the entire sonic spectrum — Muddy’s voice, his guitar, the bass, Buddy’s guitar, and even the drum…. The room is doing its work, and Muddy has calculated the distance between the mic and his mouth; the distance between the mic and the amp; the amp and the space and size of the room that creates the natural sustain and decay. This is not reverb added later — this is reverb captured there and then….
The Chess echo adds to Folk Singer’s relaxed atmosphere, creating a seductive sonic wash that belies the studied sparseness of the performances.
The second track on Folk Singer is another Waters composition, “Long Distance Call.” Muddy had recorded this song before. As the second cut on 1958’s The Best of Muddy Waters, “Long Distance Call” featured Muddy on electric, Ernest “Big” Crawford on bass, and “Little” Walter on harmonica. The acoustic version on Folk Singer in not only in a different key, but also slower than the iteration on The Best of Muddy Waters, clocking in at nearly a minute longer. When Waters sang couplets like “You say you love me, darling / Please call me on the phone sometime” and “One of these days / I’m gonna show you how nice a man can be” on the original version, his voice quavered with desperation. On Folk Singer, he’s no longer imploring. He’s declaring and promising.
The mix on “Long Distance Call” is nearly identical to that of “My Captain.” The primary distinguishing features come from the dynamics of the performances. Whereas Dixon and James created a low end on my “My Captain” that had jazzy undertones, “Long Distance Call” is heavy and plodding. Nowhere is that sonic force more apparent than at the very end of the track, as Waters delivers his final line.
The next cut, “My Captain,” provides a sonic change of pace. Despite being a Dixon composition, neither he nor James play on the track, which revolves around Waters’s voice and his and Guy’s guitars. With even fewer instruments to occupy sonic space, the realism and resolution of the recording is striking. (However, it’s also one of several tracks on Folk Singer where one can hear a few moments of distortion as something in the recording chain overloads from the enormous dynamic swings in Waters’s voice.) Stretching out to fill the sonic space, both Waters and, especially, Guy dazzle on their guitars.
Lyrically, “My Captain” is perhaps the most fascinating song on Folk Singer. Dixon, as biographer Mitsutoshi Inaba notes, was an expert at writing songs that fit the intended artist’s biography and stage persona, as well as the intended album’s target market. Given Muddy’s Mississippi youth and desire for Folk Singer to “sound like ol’ time Delta,” as Waters put it, it’s no surprise that Dixon composed a blues about sharecropping.
Dixon, whose mother worked as a janitor at a Vicksburg church, didn’t necessarily share Waters’s plantation experiences. However, as a teen, Dixon was arrested outside of Clarksdale while trying to ride the rails to Chicago. As punishment, he was placed on farm gang overseen by a “Captain Crush,” whom Goins logically speculates is the titular “captain” of the Dixon’s composition. According to Dixon:
This Captain Crush that was running the farm didn’t have no mercy — you talk about mean, ignorant, evil, stupid and crazy. He fouled up many a man’s life. There was a preacher down there and this was the first time I saw a man beat to death. To hear a man screamin’ and cryin’ and begging God and everybody else to have mercy, this is a helluva thing in a young person’s life. He never really gets over it, you know, because you’ll always see it until the day you die.
Dixon, who was only 13 years old at the time, gawked in shock as Crush beat the man to death. As punishment, Crush hit Dixon in the head with “Black Annie,” the captain’s leather and wood weapon. “I stayed deaf for almost four years,” Dixon remembered. Convinced by a fellow prisoner that Crush would kill him before his sentence expired, Dixon escaped the chain gang and finally made it to Chicago.
Dixon leveraged this horrifying experience into a nuanced lyric that morphed his own experience with Muddy’s sharecropping. However, the historical specificity of “My Captain” has led to numerous erroneous lyrical transcriptions and interpretations. As Goins explains in his masterful dissection:
The song starts out as a story about a “captain” of a prison chain gang who treats the prisoners mean and only feeds his workers soya (soy) beans, although Muddy doesn’t blame the innocent cook who has the unenviable job of having to serve it to him every day. Muddy is mainly singing about a plantation owner who is barely feeding him enough food to eat for him to have enough strength to work the fields every day. This leads to the clearer understanding that Muddy is not singing about a “wagon” team (as stated in most of the often-copied erroneous printed lyrics found online), but a mule plowing team, one of which is crippled and the other that’s blind. Both mules are weak and barely have the strength to work, but Muddy works them hard anyway — the whole time wishing he could find just one mule that could do better than either of the two. And finally things don’t “seem behind” for him — he’s complaining that these mules won’t work hard enough for him to earn enough sharecropping pennies to buy his girlfriend the preferred stylish stockings with the nice little seams behind the leg. It’s classic Willie Dixon lyric writing.
The fourth track on Folk Singer is a cover of Williamson’s lascivious “Good Morning, School Girl.” Like John Lee Hooker’s 1959 and Lightin’ Hopkins’s 1962 acoustic renditions, Waters’s arrangement transcribes Williamson’s melodic harmonica to the guitar. Guy delivers this lick in the right channel to open the track before James and Dixon enter on the left. With James slapping the snare on the two and four and Dixon’s jaunty walking bassline, the Folk Singer arrangement is closest to Hopkins’s playful rendition, but with an added jazz flair.
In the context of the Folk Singer album, “Good Morning, School Girl” serves as a needed change-of-pace from the slower blues that begin the album. It’s also a showcase for Guy’s dazzling soloing. (Notably Guy would devise an altogether different, heavier blues riff for Junior Wells’s famous electric rendition in 1965.) Even in this fairly traditional arrangement, Guy’s playing — as Goins explains — subverts traditional 12-bar blues format:
For his solo, Buddy starts his entire phrase one measure late in the cycle, but then after the four-measure phrase, he delays the next three-measure phrase by four beats, thus adding yet another measure to the length (which means he’s now two measures behind). But what happens immediately after that is quite amazing — Dixon literally turns his beat around in mid-air, deliberately drops a beat and puts shifts his entire beat over by one quick tick. Upon the words “With you,” they are back on track. Muddy is just chopping wood, keeping time with James, who never stops slapping two and four on the snare, and they all line up together, as if nothing ever happened, and complete the blues cycle through the V-IV-I turnaround as smooth as glass. So if you’re counting, Buddy’s solo stretches a 19-bar form into a twenty-measure solo, with an extra two beats (half measure) added between measure five and six. (I challenge any blues band to play that phrase exactly as these guys did it.)
With “You Gonna Need My Help,” the Waters composition that closes side one on the original vinyl, the band returns to the style of the two slow, slide-heavy cuts that opened the album. Lyrically, it’s the time-honored story of a wronged lover. In terms of arrangement, “You Gonna Need Me” is more like “Long Distance” than “My Home Is in the Delta,” in that Guy’s picking follows Waters’s slide more than Dixon’s bass. Waters also cedes even more ground to Guy than on either of those two cuts. Combined with Dixon’s slinky, sliding bassline, Guy’s playing manages to allow “You Gonna Need My Help” to mine the same vein as those earlier cuts without getting lost in the shuffle. But what really sets the track apart are Guy’s and Waters’s dueling solos at the 1:40 mark. Muddy drops the slide, instead picking in the lower register as Guy plays higher up the fretboard. At the beginning of the solo, Waters’s lines serve as a de facto second bass. Next, he veers off into a series of wild repeated hammer-ons. Muddy then makes his way up the neck of his guitar to play briefly in sync with Guy, before sliding down again. The interplay clearly energizes Waters, who’s vocal delivery soars through the song’s close.
The opening track on side two, “Cold Weather Blues,” features just Waters and Guy. Sung from the cold of Chicago, the song is, at least on the surface, a Delta transplant’s lament for the warmer climes of the South:
Whoa, times don’t get no better
Peoples, I’m gonna have to go
Times don’t get no better
Peoples, I’m gonna have to go
Well, you know I’m going back down south
People, where the weather suits my clothes
Where the weather suits my clothes
On a deeper level, it’s hard not to interpret “Cold Weather Blues” as a commentary on the fact that many of the African Americans who migrated north to Chicago encountered poverty and racism that was “no better” than what they experienced in the South.
Just two years after the release of Folk Singer, Martin Luther King, Jr., moved to Chicago to support local civil rights groups’ efforts to draw attention to the persistent segregation in the Windy City’s real estate and job markets. King’s Chicago campaign was met with a violent backlash. Peaceful civil rights protests that summer encountered angry white mobs waving Confederate flags, holding “Keep White Neighborhoods White” signs, and chanting “white power.” During a march in Marquette Park, some 4,000 counter-protesters pelted the marchers with bricks and rocks, one of which struck King in the head, knocking him to the ground. Afterward, King told reporters, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
In the face of such a reception, many African American migrants to Chicago could undoubtedly relate to Waters’s wondering whether he’d be better off back home:
Oh, so cold up north that the birds can’t hardly fly
So cold up north that the birds can’t hardly fly
I’m going back south
And let this winter pass on by
And let this winter pass on by
And let this winter pass on by
Let this winter pass on by, yeah
The seventh cut on Folk Singer lightens the mood. The progenitor of “Brick House,” “Baby Got Back,” and “Tempo,” Johnny Temple’s “Big Leg Woman” makes its point clear: “Big leg womens, keep your dresses down / You got stuff to make a Bulldog hug a hound.” Musically, “Big Leg Women” again features only Waters and Guy. Goins breaks down the arrangement:
[N]otice how on the main verses one guitar “chops wood” on four beats slightly indicating the flavor of the chord, which indicates that keeping that time steady is more important than the chord itself. And even in Buddy’s solo, he chops wood for himself in between the four-note phrases, and goes right back to choppin’ wood immediately after, as Muddy sings his last verse. Also notice that in the turnaround, Muddy and Buddy play almost exactly the same two-measure phrase getting back to the last verse — you can hear the direct influence the Mississippi approach to playing blues Muddy had on Buddy, and also how well Buddy learned it.
The penultimate song is “Country Boy,” another Waters composition. Originally released in 1952 in a thumping electric guitar-and-harmonica arrangement, the Folk Singer rendition slows the pace down considerably.
Like the first two cuts on the album, “Country Boy” opens with a variation on Muddy’s signature slide line. However, despite the molasses tempo, “Country Boy” swings more than either of those songs, propelled forward by Guy’s repeated, sashaying riff. With Guy carrying the track’s momentum, both Dixon and, especially, James get to stretch out a little on “Country Boy.” Leading up to and throughout Muddy’s solo around 1:50, Dixon and James change things up, with James’s thumping kick and stuttering snare creating tension behind Muddy’s clacking slide. It’s one of the most thrilling moments on the album.
Lyrically, “Country Boy” is an apologia-cum-excuse from the womanizing Waters:
Don’t say I don’t love you
Because I stays out all night long
Don’t say I don’t love you
Because I stays out all night long
You know I’m a country boy
And I don’t know what’s going on
Don’t say I don’t love you
Because I will never treat you right
Don’t say I don’t love you
Because I will never treat you right
I may be a country boy
But I will always treat you right
Fittingly, given Chess’s vision for the album, the final track on Folk Singer returned all the way to the plantation. “I Feel Like Going Home” is the first song that Muddy played for Alan Lomax in 1941. Originally dubbed “Country Blues,” it arrived at its more famous name after John Work misheard the line “I feel like blowing my horn” as “I feel like going home.” Back in 1941, Waters told his visitors that he’d written the song in October of 1938. “I was fixing the puncture on a car, and I had been mistreated by a girl and it looked like that run in my mind to sing that song...,” he told Lomax and Work. “I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind — come to me just like that song, and I started to sing and went on with it.”
The tune was based, Muddy explained, on Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” However, as was often the case in the blues tradition, it had been a melody that had been around before Johnson put it to record. Regardless, a comparison of Johnson’s and Waters’s songs shows that Muddy’s “I Feel Like Going Home” shared only the most cursory commonality with “Walkin’ Blues.”
Topically, “I Feel Like Going Home” captures the heart of the blues with clever turns of phrase. Muddy’s been jilted by an unfaithful lover. Depending on how one interprets the double entendre of “blowing my horn,” the lyric’s either about unfulfilled sexual desire or the power of music to soothe a broken heart. Likely both.
Well, it’s getting late on in the evening, I feel like, like blowing my horn
When I woke up this morning all I had, I had was gone
Late over in the evening, child, I feel like, like blowing my horn
Well, woke up this morning, all I had was gone
Well, brooks run into the ocean, the ocean run in, into the sea
If I don’t find my baby, somebody going sure bury me
Brooks run into the ocean, boys, that ocean now, look here, run into the sea
Now, don’t find my baby somebody sure gonna bury me
Well, minutes seemed like hours, and hours begin to seem like days
Seems like my baby would stop her old evil way
Minutes seemed like hours, oh, an hour seemed like days
Well, seems like my baby, whoo-hoo, well boy, would stop her low-down ways
Fittingly, given its origins, “I Feel Like Going Home” is performed alone by Muddy. It’s impossible to imagine it anywhere else in the tracklist, because it’s a showstopper. Once again, Goins’s description captures the song’s magic:
This is the strongest tune ever, and it’s amazing that he seemed to have saved the best for last. It’s a rare thing to hear someone in the studio releasing that kind of power — most recordings capture the artist fully aware of their surroundings. What you’re hearing now is a rare thing — Muddy forgetting himself and going inside himself….
You can hear him smiling, grimacing, mouth twisting, shaking his head, chin, lips, mouth, throat tremors, that’s how he gets the syllables, tones, curled vowels, unending unearthly and unfamiliar trails of melismas attached to the end of familiar words. And blurred lines between the ends of sounds and the beginning of the next one, like how he says, “brooksrunnintod’ocean,d’ocean runnin’…into the seaaaaaah...”
In the best of the best, there’s a certain level of confidence combined with audacity in high art that is extremely rare, and you can find it just about anywhere in if your eye/ear/nose/tongue is keen enough to pick it out. Think Marlon Brando in movies. Think Gianni Versace in fashion. Think Frank Gehry in architecture. Think Daniel Boulud in gastronomy. Think Miles Davis in jazz. And on and on….
Released on January 30, 1964, Folk Singer was met by a largely indifferent consumer response and a sometimes-hostile critical reception. Down Beat’s Pete Welding, for example, bizarrely called Waters’s singing “forced and artificial” and lamented that his acoustic style had changed in the twenty-plus years since the 1941 Library of Congress recordings, claiming that Folk Singer’s “affected performance” was not nearly as good as the former’s “stunning demonstration of the pure Mississippi delta style.”
While the record wasn’t a commercial success, it arguably succeeded in reestablishing Muddy with folk music fans. Among the major recent folk festivals, Waters had only appeared at Folksong ‘59, a Carnegie Hall concert organized by Lomax. Instead, Muddy’s appearances tended to be at jazz and blues festivals. But in 1964, following the release of Folk Singer, Waters appeared at both the Newport and New York folk festivals.
Like Waters’s late-’60s attempt to tap in psychedelia — the unfairly maligned Electric Mud — Folk Singer remains something of a polarizing recording among Waters aficionados. Waters’s biographer Robert Gordon, for example, writes that, while Folk Singer “is as intimate sounding as you could ask for… it’s never much moved me.” Likewise, after declaring “Muddy Waters had never been a folk-singer,” the Oxford Encyclopedia of Popular Music praises the playing on Folk Singer before concluding that “the only drawback to the enterprise is the starkness of the sound, which implies conscious artistry and preciousness in a set of songs that should express a stronger range of emotions. This is Muddy Waters without a tiger in his tank and with a mojo operating on half power.”
Folk Singer’s first appearance in digital came in 1986, when MCA released a “Two on One” CD with Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill” Broonzy and Folk Singer on the same disc. Though uncredited, Steve Hoffman mastered this CD.
The album’s next digital appearance came as part of Charly Records’ massive 9 CD The Complete Muddy Waters box set. Folk Singer is included in full at the end of disc seven. The set’s liner notes indicate “Mastering by Andy Pearce and Sean Cotter and Charly Studio.”
The first standalone digital release of Folk Singer was Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s 1993 CD. This disc was the first album transferred by MFSL’s new GAIN (Greater Ambient Information Network) analog-to-digital conversion system. Designed by Theta’s Mike Moffat (who’s now Schiit’s digital guru), the new A/D system cost $40,000 (nearly $80,000 in today’s dollars) and relied on military-use 16-bit Burr-Brown chips4. According to a 1994 Stereophile report by Corey Greenberg on the MFSL Folk Singer CD and the GAIN system:
The mastering chain for the new Muddy Waters CD, as well as for all subsequent Mobile Fidelity releases, was a totally new setup which replaces the modified Wadia ADC used on previous MoFi CDs. The original Chess master tapes were played back on a modified Studer analog tape machine fitted with all-new electronics designed by Nelson Pass. The Studer’s analog outputs were taken directly to the Moffat ADC — no EQing, no processing, no nothing. The digital output of the ADC was then stored on a digital medium, such as a U- Matic cartridge or even a removable hard-disk, and sent to the CD-cutting facility.
Upon its release, the MFSL Folk Singer CD was hailed as a landmark release in the history of digital audio — proof that the CD format could sound as good, or better, than analog. As Greenberg wrote:
Believe it or not, Moffat now believes that Philips was right about 16-bit — pretty incredible, coming from a designer who spearheaded the market for 18-and 20 bit D/A processors. The performance of the new ADC — and Moffat’s reaction to the Muddy Waters CD produced with it — has convinced him that if full 16-bit performance can be maintained all the way through from the input jacks on the A/D to the output jacks on the D/A, this may be all the resolution we need for essentially perfect digital audio. After hearing the new Folk Singer CD, I’m inclined to agree with him…. I can only echo Mike Moffat’s sentiments that this is the first CD I have ever played that sounds exactly like a really good LP…. Anyone who’s still got a good analog rig and a pair of cars knows about that ineffable rightness that LP play back has in spades and that even the best digital replay lacks — this Muddy Waters CD has “it.”
Interestingly, though, Mobile Fidelity’s president Herb Belkin seemed to prefer the company’s vinyl issue of Folk Singer. “The guys who were doing the CD, this was their first time around with GAIN, and they came out of there with their eyes bugged out of their head and their hearts banging away. They said, ‘Wow, we did it, we did it! Listen to this — it sounds like a record,’” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. “And the other [vinyl] guys were just working away, saying, ‘Yeah, but wait till you hear what it’s supposed to sound like.’ And the record just knocks your socks off.”
Regardless of debates over the superiority of the company’s vinyl or digital mastering of Folk Singer, Mobile Fidelity’s reissues helped cement the album’s status as an audiophile classic. “The idea of a Chess recording being considered audiophile didn’t make any sense,” MFSL’s head of product development Michael Grantham told Billboard in 1994. “But I had heard this album referred to in that light more than once. I bought the commercial pressing and, from hearing that, knew it was well-recorded. When we found the first-generation masters at MCA in the Chess vault, I was quite pleased. We’ve stepped that up and made it really great. You can really hear the room, the chairs creaking, and spit on the microphone. It’s almost spooky.”
Rounding out Mobile Fidelity’s GAIN-mastered reissue of Folk Singer are two bonus tracks from April 1964 sessions with Waters, Dixon, Otis Spann, James “Pee Wee” Madison, and S.P. Leary.
The next digital release of Folk Singer came in 1998, with Classic Records’ 24/96 transfer of the album on DVD. Its credits state that “digital preparation [was done] in cooperation with Kevin Halverson and Muse Electronics.” It also includes the same two bonus tracks as the MFSL CD.
That same year, BGO Records released its own twofer CD of Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill” Broonzy and Folk Singer. No mastering credits are listed and, oddly, the running order of Folk Singer is different from the original album.
The next year, 1999, saw two releases from MCA / Chess: a CD and an SACD. The two releases have the same track list, which includes the same bonus tracks as the MFSL CD, as well as three additional tracks from an October 1964 Waters session with a different, larger backing band. The CD’s liner notes say that the disc was “Digitally re-mastered by Erick Labson, MCA Music Media Studious, No. Hollywood, CA.” The SACD’s liner notes say “Digitally re-mastered and mastered for SACD by Erick Labson, MCA Music Media Studious, No. Hollywood, CA.” Unusually, the CD and SACD seem to have slightly different masterings.
The next version is where we begin to get into some of the more confusing remasterings of Folk Singer. (It’s safe to say that, by the 21st century, MCA / Chess wasn’t stingy with its masters.) In 2002, Discovery Sounds released a CD remaster credited to Volker Bohlmeier and RASH Studios in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The liner notes by Bohlmeir say:
The Remaster 94 was done in a recording studio in Germany. The people involved — Ulli Pösselt and Thomas Erkelenz — are specialists in old recording techniques, who know when these techniques can improve sound quality…. The “RASH Tonstudio” also has the same old “recording instruments” which were used in 1963 and both Ulli and Thomas have become adept at their craft…. Ulli and Thomas needed two 14-hour days to setup the Telefunken T9 tube tape machine exactly to match the music program on the original master tape. Unfortunately, all the tones and level were not precise on the original master, so they had to measure with the best equipment available — their ears…. During the remastering process, they used only four channels of the 32-channel mixer and the spectral processor DPR 901. This equipment was used to get back the full dynamic range and balance, which had almost vanished from the original master due to the 30 years storage and the bad quality of the tape. When the original recording was done, Buddy Guy was playing with new guitar strings — this could not be heard or properly noticed — but after Ulli’s and Thomas’s work, you can hear the exciting sustenance of new strings!... The overall effect of the remastering process has been to realize the full potential of a sound only hinted at before.
The fact that it’s referred to as “Remaster 94,” that “30 years storage” is mentioned,” and that the rest of the liner notes refer to a vinyl pressing makes it hard to know just how accurate these credits are. Nonetheless, it’s clearly a unique mastering.
In 2005, Classic Records released another hi-res DVD of Folk Singer. The double-sided DVD is 24/96 on one side and 24/192 on the other, and includes the same bonus tracks as the previous Classic DVD.
Three years later, Folk Singer was remastered yet again. This time, as part of JVC’s XRCD24 CD format.
In 2011, Folk Singer was released by Analogue Productions as a hybrid SACD mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio. It included the same two bonus tracks as the MFSL CD and the Classic DVDs, but in reverse order. This same mastering was made available as a DSD download. Two years later, hi-resolution download sites such as HDTracks began offering Folk Singer as a 24/192 download. No source or mastering information was given, but it included the same two bonus tracks, in the same order as the MFSL CD and the Classic DVDs. Interestingly, at some point the order of these bonus tracks was reversed to match the Analogue Productions’ SACD running order. The most detailed mastering information was ProStudioMasters’ classification of it as “Geffen Studio Masters.” In all cases, the mastering contained in these hi-res downloads is Gray’s Analogue Productions SACD mastering. The 24/96 version of Folk Singer streaming on Qobuz, which has “(SACD)” appended to each track name, hints at this lineage.
If the above weren’t complicated enough, there also are at least two downloadable versions of Folk Singer available only in Europe. The first is a 2017 Resurfaced Records 16/44.1 download, which uses the same alternate running order as the BGO twofer, but does not share that disc’s mastering. The second is a 2019 download, released by both Doxy Records and Reborn Recordings, with the former 16/44.1 and the latter 24/48. In both cases, it shares the same bonus tracks as the 1999 MCA CD.
Finally, in 2018 Master Music released a hybrid SACD of Folk Singer. Despite ostensibly being released by a different company, this SACD has nearly the same catalog number (HDRSA 1001 vs. HDRCD 1001) and same liner notes as the 2002 Discovery CD. Yet, it’s actually a different mastering.
Phew! For those counting along, that makes for 14 unique digital masterings of Folk Singer:
- 1986 MCA twofer (light blue)
- 1992 Complete Muddy Waters box (dark blue)
- 1993 MFSL CD (light brown)
- 1998 Classic DVD (dark brown)
- 1998 BGO twofer (red)
- 1999 MCA CD (light green)
- 1999 MCA SACD (dark green)
- 2002 Discovery CD and 2018 Master SACD
- 2005 Classic DVD (yellow)
- 2008 JCV XRCD
- 2011 Analogue Productions SACD (purple)
- 2017 Resurfaced 16/44.1 download
2018 Master Music SACD
- 2018 Doxy 16/44.1 download and 2019 Reborn 24/48 download
For the first step of this TBVO analysis, let’s take a look at dynamic range of each version, measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR score:5
The majority of these masterings are very consistent by both dynamic range measures. However, the 2002 Discovery, 2008 XRCD, 2017 Resurfaced, and 2018 Doxy masterings all stand out as much less dynamic than the others.
The latter two are the most extreme cases, and even a cursory listening indicates that they’ve rendered this superb recording lo-fi. The primary effects of the added compressing are more tape noise and a flat, bloated sound. Moreover, when taking a peek at each release’s spectrogram, they seem to be from lossy sources. In the most extreme case, the Resurfaced mastering has almost no content above 16kHz. As a result, it’s an easy decision to cross both off of our list.
The lack of dynamics on the 2002 Discovery mastering 2008 XRCD mastering are a bit more surprising. As noted above, the liner notes for the former rhapsodizes about the mastering methods and “realiz[ing] the full potential of a sound only hinted at before,” while JVC’s XRCD series is aimed at an audiophile audience and has a good track record. Given that, let’s examine them a bit more closely.
After using Har-Bal to match their loudness levels, here’s what “My Home Is in the Delta” looks like on — from top to bottom — on the MFSL, Discovery, JVC, and Master versions using Audacity:
As the DR and R128 numbers suggest, the JVC, Discovery, and Master masterings appear to have compression (the soft sections are louder) and limiting (the peaks are reduced) applied, with the JVC being more significantly limited than the Discovery or Master, but all three being compressed.
Turning to the spectrogram view in Audacity and using “My Home Is in the Delta” as an example, it also appears that the JVC, Discovery, and Master discs have little substantive content above 15 kHz, as opposed to the MFSL, which has information all the way to 22 kHz:
Finally, when comparing6 level-matched, time-aligned WAVs of the four versions, there’s no contest. Due to the compression, the JVC, Discovery, and Master discs have a much higher noise level. On some tracks, the Discovery seems to try to compensate for this by rolling off the high end, which only serves to compound its sonic flaws. Regardless, the JVC, Discovery, and Master discs are easy cuts, too.
That leaves us with nine masterings to investigate further. (For reference, their upcoming Har-Bal graph colors are included in parenthesis.)
- 1986 MCA twofer (light blue)
- 1992 Complete Muddy Waters box (dark blue)
- 1993 MFSL CD (light brown)
- 1998 Classic DVD (dark brown)
- 1998 BGO twofer (red)
- 1999 MCA CD (light green)
- 1999 MCA SACD (dark green)
- 2002 Discovery CD and 2018 Master SACD
- 2005 Classic DVD (yellow)
2008 JCV XRCD
- 2011 Analogue Productions SACD (purple)
2017 Resurfaced 16/44.1 download
2018 Master Music SACD
2018 Doxy 16/44.1 download and 2019 Reborn 24/48 download
To begin, let’s start by comparing the first two releases of Folk Singer against each other in Har-Bal using a sampling of tracks (“My Home Is in the Delta,” “My Captain,” “You Gonna Need My Help,” “Cold Weather Blues,” and “Feel Like Going Home”). The MCA twofer mastered by Hoffman is in light blue, and The Complete Muddy Waters box mastered by Pearce and Cotter is in dark blue:
Generally, the box set tends to have more energy from 2 kHz to 10 kHz and, often, more upper bass and lower midrange (around 200 Hz). The Hoffman mastering, on the other hand, usually (though not always) has more bass and less treble.
Taking a peek at the spectrograms of these two masterings, one oddity stood out. On The Complete Muddy Waters box, the right channel consistently has very little information above 15 kHz:
Given that it only impacts the right channel, it’s hard to say whether this was an issue with the transfer or a decision to try to remove high-end noise.
Subjectively, Hoffman’s 1986 mastering bests the mastering on The Complete Muddy Waters box. The Pearce and Cotter mastering shares some of the characters of the more compressed JVC and Discovery masterings, if to a lesser degree. The box set, for example, has as slightly higher noise floor than the 1986 twofer, as well as more prominent drums relative to the rest of the instruments. However, the main difference is that equalization on the box set causes Folk Singer to sound boxy. Waters’s voice, for example, is unnaturally chesty and unclear. Likewise, Guy’s acoustic sounds as if it’s mic’d further back and there’s significantly less string articulation — something that perhaps comes as no surprise given that Buddy’s guitar is in the right channel, which the spectrogram shows has little high-end.
While, as a whole, The Complete Muddy Waters is a tremendous collection, it’s not the best version of Folk Singer. We now have eight masterings left.
The next matchup is between the 1986 Hoffman mastering (light blue) and the MFSL disc (light brown):
The EQ on these two masterings is remarkably similar. Given that we know MFSL’s GAIN system was a flat transfer, it appears that Hoffman mastering cuts a little bit of the high end above 4 kHz and occasionally has a touch less bass.
While there’s no doubt that the Hoffman mastering is good, it can’t complete with the MFSL. Overall, the Hoffman mastering sounds drier and more muted, even on bright headphones like the Focal Utopia. The MFSL allows much more of the famous Chess echo and ambience to shine through. Whether due to the slight equalization differences or the transfers, the MFSL version of Folk Singer simply conveys more information. The most obvious manifestation of these differences comes with James’s brushed snare in the left channel. On the MFSL’s rendering of “You Gonna Need My Help,” you can discern subtle difference in every hit. The echo sends the snare’s transient not only to the right, but also even further the left. The Hoffman twofer, in contrast, flattens the subtle nuances between each snare strike into a more homogenized thwack, and the echo is almost totally absent.
With the Mobile Fidelity CD (light brown) now in the lead, the next entrant is the 1998 Classic DVD (dark brown):
The EQ differences between these two masterings are hard to summarize. On nearly all songs, the DVD has more upper-range energy. However, from the midrange on down, sometimes the DVD has more energy and sometimes the MFSL does.
In isolation, the Classic DVD is a good mastering. However, it’s up against stiff competition in the MFSL. Overall, Classic’s decision to boost the treble seems to be a mistake. Its main effect is to increase the presence of tape noise and occasionally make the acoustic guitars sound too edgy. Whether due to this EQ decision or due to differences in the transfer process, the Classic DVD also sounds much flatter, with most sounds pulled to the front. The MFSL CD, in contrast, does a remarkable job of conveying front-to-back depth. The most significant issue with the Classic DVD, however, is that it inexplicably switches the left and right channels on “You Gonna Need My Help.” Overall, there’s no contest. The MFSL remains in the lead.
Next up is the 1998 BGO twofer. Let’s take a look at it (red) against the MFSL (light brown) in Har-Bal:
The most parsimonious summary of these two versions’ EQ differences is that the BGO release is much more midrange-centric. Despite the seemingly significant differences in the graphs, these two versions arguably sound more similar than any two compared thus far. That said, the BGO’s equalization doesn’t do the recording any favors. On both full-band and guitar-only tracks, the BGO’s lack of bass, in particular, is detrimental. For example, on “Cold Weather Blues” the impact of Muddy’s low-string hammer-ons is muted by the BGO’s equalization. The rolled-off high end also has the effect of taking away some of the recording’s echo and ambiance. Finally, the BGO also lacks the MFSL’s depth. Like the Hoffman mastering, the BGO isn’t bad by any means, but it can’t compete with the MFSL CD.
As noted above, in 1999 MCA released both a CD and an SACD of Folk Singer, both credited to Erick Labson. Before comparing each to the MFSL CD, let’s see how they compare to each other. The CD is light green and the SACD is dark green:
Unlike many simultaneously CD/SACD releases, it does not appear that the SACD mastering was simply downsampled for the CD. A quick peek at the waveforms for each release shows that the CD has a fair bit more peak limiting than the SACD. How much this accounts for the EQ differences isn’t clear. Regardless, we’ll treat them as different masterings.
Let’s start by comparing the CD version of the Labson mastering (light green) against the MFSL CD (light brown):
The peak levels of the MCA CD are much louder than those on the MFSL CD, and the main driver of this difference seems to be significantly higher levels of low bass. From 100 Hz down (and especially from 40 Hz down), the Labson disc has much more energy than the MFSL disc.
Subjectively, the MCA CD seems to have the best transfer besides the MFSL. For example, while not quite up to the MFSL’s standard, the MCA CD has the best depth of any other Folk Singer version examined thus far. However, there are clear differences between the two discs. The main one seems to be that the MCA CD has some added compression, which raises the tape noise level. This is especially apparent on quiet tracks like “Cold Weather Blues.” Also, the channel balance is very different on the MCA disc. Across almost all tracks, the right channel is louder than the MFSL CD’s right channel. While the MFSL disc places Muddy’s guitar and voice almost squarely in the center, the MCA CD pulls it to the center-right, raising Buddy’s guitar in the process. While arguably still better than any other version thus far, save the MFSL, the MCA disc also seems to lack that last little bit of clarity possessed by the MFSL disc, as evidenced by slightly less nuanced snare hits and a somewhat less precise reverb. In short, the MFSL is still winning.
What about the Labson SACD, though? Here’s how it (dark green) compares to the MFSL (light brown):
While basically the same overall shape as the Labson CD, the SACD is just a hair closer to the MFSL’s equalization in a few areas.
Comparing level-matched, time-aligned versions of the MFSL and Labson SACD in Audacity, it’s clear that the SACD is superior to its companion CD. While the SACD is still more compressed than the MFSL CD and is still tilted towards the right channel, both issues are slightly less significant (subjectively and by measurement) than with its CD counterpart. That said, while the MCA SACD is preferable to the CD and is, overall, an excellent transfer and mastering, it’s still not good enough to dethrone the MFSL.
Our penultimate challenger is the 2005 Classic dual-sided DVD. Here’s how it (yellow) stacks up against the MFSL (light brown) in Har-Bal:
The differences between the two masters are fairly consistent across all five sample tracks, with the Classic DVD having significantly less low bass than the MFSL CD and often a bit more treble.
Subjectively, there are positives and negatives to the 2005 Classic DVD. On the positive side, it corrects the channel switch from its 1998 iteration. Its channel balance is also better than the Labson SACD, if not as good as the MFSL CD. Additionally, the Classic DVD’s overall resolution, in terms of instrumental detail and vocals, is better than many of the previous versions of Folk Singer. On the other hand, it has a much higher noise floor than either the MFSL or the Labson SACD. While, as noted above, the Classic DVD does have a bit of a treble boost relative to the MFSL, it’s so slight that it’s hard to chalk this degree of increased noise up to EQ. Rather, it seems that the Classic DVD’s transfer of the master tape is worse than MFSL’s or Labson’s. Indeed, the noise floor is high enough that it interferes with the natural decay of the Chess reverb, cutting it off too soon. Given that, it’s an easy decision to cross the 2005 Classic DVD off of our list. It ranks below both the MFSL CD and the Labson SACD.
The final contender is Analogue Productions hybrid SACD mastered by Kevin Gray, which is also serves as the source of most Folk Singer hi-resolution downloads and streams. The Gray mastering is purple and the MFSL is, as always, light brown:
As with the Classic DVD, the pattern of differences between the MFSL CD and Gray’s mastering are fairly consistent across all five tracks. The MFSL disc has significantly more low bass and a touch more lower midrange than Gray’s mastering, while the Analogue Production disc has a bit more high end than the MFSL.
Immediately, it’s clear that Gray’s mastering is the most serious threat to the MFSL CD’s supremacy. The AP disc has the best channel balance outside of the MFSL’s. It has a somewhat elevated noise floor that, at times, does impede the full decay of the Chess echo, but it’s a much less serious issue than with the Classic DVD. Gray’s mastering also has the best depth and detail retrieval of any challenger to the MFSL’s throne. Yet, the MFSL is, once again, more three-dimensional, with its almost wrap-around front-to-back depth.
Likewise, while (even with the higher noise floor) Gray’s mastering has superb detail retrieval, certain seemingly inconsequential sounds and ambient cues are more apparent on the MFSL CD, despite the fact that it has less treble than the Analogue Productions disc. For example, right after Waters sings “the shape I’m in” on “My Home Is in the Delta,” there are specific nuances to James’s drums and Dixon’s bass on the left, Muddy’s guitar in the center, and Guy’s guitar on the right. Waters’s guitar is mixed low, and both the MFSL and AP masterings due a masterful job of letting the listener track every nuance in the circular riff played by Waters. Arguably, the AP’s slightly brighter presentation might even make it a smidge better than the MFSL on that count. However, the hardest details to hear in this section of “Delta” are the nuances James’s drums, given that they’re competing for sonic real estate with Dixon’s bass. The MFSL’s lower noise floor and better depth let the listener hear not just the nuances of James’s barely-there ride cymbal, but also the squeaks of his drum stool. To be sure, these sounds are there on the AP disc, too, but they lack that extra bit of detail that the MFSL mastering has. That’s all the more remarkable given that the MFSL’s extra bass should make those sounds harder, not easier, to hear. Speaking of low-end, it’s sorely missing from the Analogue Productions disc. During Waters’s slide solo later in “Delta,” Dixon’s playing recedes too far into the background on the AP mastering. It’s also a time when the tape noise begins to overwhelm the music. That’s not the case on the MFSL disc.
Ultimately, while this is the closest call yet, the MFSL CD still prevails.
The winner of the TBVO crown for Muddy Waters’s Folk Singer is the 1993 Mobile Fidelity CD. This is an album with a host of solid masterings, though, and Gray’s mastering for Analogue Productions is not far behind. For those who just want to hear Folk Singer, the latter is a fine choice, given that it’s streaming on Qobuz. But for those who want the absolute best version of Folk Singer — and, arguably, one of the best sounding CDs ever made — it’s worth making the effort to track down the MFSL disc.
When I wrote this TBVO, I assumed that the 2002 Discovery CD had the same mastering as the 2010 Master Music hybrid SACD, since (despite being released by different companies), the two versions have nearly identical catalog numbers and the same liner notes. I had the 2010 Master SACD, which is readily available online, at hand when writing the TBVO. I'd also ordered the 2002 Discovery CD from overseas, just to be safe, but it took many, many weeks to arrive, and I didn't think it was necessary to wait for it before publishing.
To my surprise, when the Discovery CD arrived yesterday, I found that it actually contains a different mastering than the Master SACD. Is it a good mastering? No. Indeed, the transfer may be identical, but the equalization isn't.
Needless to say, this didn't change the conclusion of the TBVO, but I've updated the relevant paragraphs, tables, and graphs to reflect that the 2002 Discovery CD and the 2010 Master SACD are, indeed, different, despite sharing the same mastering credits.
1. As audiophiles have discussed and debated, there’s no shortage of audiophile blues recordings. Indeed, Folk Singer isn’t even the only audiophile-quality blues album from the mid ‘60s that’s been reissued on CD by audiophile labels. For example, Willie Dixon’s I Am the Blues was issued by Mobile Fidelity in 1991; Lightnin’ Hopkins, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry’s 1963 album Blues Hoot was remastered by DCC in 1995; and John Lee Hooker’s 1966 album It Serve You Right To Suffer was remastered by Analogue Productions in 2010.
2. Waters himself seems to have had mixed feelings about the idea of authenticity in the blues, particularly when it came to the Rolling Stones. In 1971, he told Guralnick, “I think they’re great people, but they’re not blues players. Really, what separates them from people like Wolf and myself, we’re doing the stuff like we did ‘way years ago down in Mississippi. These kids are just getting up, getting stuff, and going with it, you know? So we’re expressing our lives, the hard times and different things we been through. It’s not real. They don’t feel it. I don’t think you can feel the blues until you’ve been through some hard times.” But seven years later, he told Palmer, “When the Rollin’ Stones came through the States, they came to record at the Chess studios. When that happened, I thinks to myself how these white kids was sitting down and thinking and playing the blues that my black kids was bypassing. That was a hell of a thing, man, to think about. I still think about it today. Some of these white kids are playing good blues, but my people, they want something they can bump off of. I play in places now don’t have no black faces in there but our black faces.”
3. In the 1976, Waters and Dixon sued Chess’s publishing arm, Arc Music, over unpaid royalties. Chess settled the lawsuit, and both Waters and Dixon recovered their publishing.
4. Expect a full-length article on MFSL’s GAIN era in the near future.
5. For versions that have the track list out of the original order, I’m moving the tracks to the original order to keep the track list consistent. I’m also ignoring all bonus tracks.
6. For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD. DVDs were ripped with DVD Audio Extractor. SACDs were ripped to an ISO with a PlayStation 3. Then I used Sonore’s ISO2DSD to extract the DSD from the ISO. Finally, I use Sonore’s DSD2FLAC to convert the DSD files to PCM. In order to make sure that Har-Bal’s graphs, which are affected by sample rates, present apples-to-apples visual comparisons, all hi-res files were downsampled to 16/44.1 with XLD. Finally, all files were level-matched using Har-Bal’s loudness matching function. To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching. Finally, more casual comparisons were done in Audirvana. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and the Matrix Sabre Pro. Amplification came from a Bryston 4B Cubed power amplifier and a Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia, ZMF Vérité Closed, and Audio-Technica ATH-ADX500.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.