Little Walter: Smooth and Fresh

Little Walter was too bright a star not to shine on the Chess recordings.  He played harp in new and innovative ways that play as prominent a role in Muddy Water’s records as Muddy’s vocals and guitar.  By training himself to play singular notes on the harmonica, in bright and innovative patterns, his style matched that of bop jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker.  His melodic style is at once smooth and fluid as well as angular and unpredictable.   Walter always kept his lines fresh and very melodic, unlike the bombastic playing style of his predecessors.

He was uniquely pioneering in two more aspects of harmonica as well.  He began using the chromatic harp to jump scales and methods (most of which is beyond my musical knowledge).  No one had ever played so aptly on a chromatic harp.  Walter is also known for introducing distortion into his playing style.  This idea was right on the cutting edge and he purposefully added distortion to his microphone to bolster the gritty blues sound.  For these innovations, as well as his music, Little Walter has a fixed place in music history.

Willie Dixon’s Diverse Background

By the time Willie Dixon started making music for Chess Records, he been a part of just about as much of American culture as was possible.  Raised in the Mississippi, he obviously had southern culture in his blood, however, he also had a great love for New Orleans culture and music in particular.   His time in Chicago was the spent understanding city life and getting accustomed to life in the great migration.

These influences surely bleed into his own playing and writing style.  New Orleans polyphony and tin pan alley structure would have absolutely lended to his own songwriting styles.  The vocal groups that he performed with in Chicago bleed in song structure especially.  Most of all, perhaps, the gang vocal style so prevalently found in southern culture is riddled throughout all of his work with Chess.  Songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Spoonful.”

 

Willie Dixon’s New Spirituality

Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon developed his own set of spiritual tools through the music of the blues.  In his life, he met innumerable hardships that any black southerner would have faced in the south in the first half of the twentieth century.  Through the blues, Willie Dixon not only spoke about his own hardships and pains, but also provided help and sympathy to millions of others.

At the age of 13, Willie’s father died though they had never lived in the same house.  Willie’s mother worked to support her children and lost 7 of the 14 children that she birthed.  Despite these hardships, Willie’s mother encouraged him to read poetry and engage in performance art.  During this time, Willie was exposed to the harsh racism of the south and even suffered attacks from members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dixon did not declare himself a member of one religion, however, he made it clear that the blues performed a very spiritual function in his own life.  He believed that the blues are “inside us.”  This common internal emotion and need for expression provide a spiritual function across humanity.  In this way, Dixon used the blues to deal with his own struggles like “therapy.”

“Leonard Chess didn’t know nothing about no blues”

Muddy Waters is attributed with having said, “Leonard Chess didn’t know nothing about no blues.”  Whether or not he actually did, the statement is not far off.  Leonard Chess did not even know much about music in general.  What he did know was how to turn a profit and he had a great knack for opportunity.

Chess

After meeting Evelyn Aron, who founded Aristocrat Records with Charles Aron, Leonard was convinced that he needed to get into the recording business. With a history in bending rules, Leonard took his brother and his expertise in selling liquor and owning a nightclub and eventually turned it into one of the most influential recording companies in the history. Undoubtedly, the success of Chess records is largely the result of his writers and performers, however, Leonard and Phil cannot be discredited for their savvy business sense and eagerness to leap on a new opportunity.

The Road to the Chicago Blues

In 1941 and 1942, Alan Lomax recorded Muddy Waters under the name Morganfield McKinley.  After recording with Lomax, Muddy Waters received a check and a copy of the recordings.  Though he had already lived in and left Chicago, Muddy took his solidified proof of musicianship as a sign that he belonged back in the city. So in 1943, Muddy Waters returned to Chicago.

In Chicago, his sound developed more dramatically in production than in style of play.  Once signed signed to Aristocrat, which became Chess Records, Muddy Waters developed the definite blues lineup and sound. We now call this style Chicago Blues.

One of the earliest examples of Chicago Blues is the song “Rollin’ Stone,” which provides great insight for the cultural combination that Muddy Waters encompassed.  “Rollin’ Stone” is also known as “Catfish Blues” because it derives from an eponymous southern folk song by the same name.  Early recordings of “Catfish Blues” offer an acoustically-based song that stays on the I chords throughout the verse and moves to the IV and V during the instrumentals breaks.  Muddy Waters approaches the song entirely the same way, except he plays it with an electric guitar.

Chicago Blues

“Rollin’ Stone” is an example of a very bare bones Chicago Blues song.  The style is generally hallmarked with a lineup of electric guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums.  The harmonica, vocals and electric guitar usually receive the most prominent spots in this rhythmic, riff-based genre.  With songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” Muddy Waters burst on to the national scene with the help of Little Walter, the rest of his band and Willie Dixon at the helm, writing the songs.  Once you’ve heard the Chicago blues, it truly stays with you forever.

Delta Bluesmen: Discerning Truth From Legend

As long as there have been bluesmen in the south, they have been surrounded with legends though.  For Robert Johnson, there was the infamous story of his deal with the devil to become a famous performer.  However, contemporary romanticisation of the Delta Blues is often shrouded in myth and misconception.  Below I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of working as a blues musician in first third of the 20th century.

Pros

Cons

Able to travel much more than the average black southerner

Spent life on the road in a constant state of flux and uncertainty

Played very high-energy Juke joint parties, where they were treated like stars

Forced to live within the Jim Crow laws of the south

Enjoyed many afterhours pleasures

Played for tips and scraps and many had to put in additional work on plantations

Polished their craft by playing for hours on end, each with his own unique style

Seen as sinners, which cause some, namely Son House, great personal and spiritual anguish.

Eventually, appreciated enough to get recorded by Alan Lomax

Most did not live long enough to see their recordings and contributions appreciate.  Son House became one of the few that was “rediscovered” in the 1960s.

 

Crossroads