Album #19: Muddy Waters Day at Paul’s Mall

Muddy Waters with James Cotton in 1978. Photo via Wikipedia.

Like any suburban kid who ever picked up a guitar, I loved the blues. So when the old WBCN Radio announced that it would broadcast the Muddy Waters Day festivities live from Paul’s Mall, I was pretty excited. On June 15, 1976, I turned on my tape deck and managed to capture 48 minutes of musical magic.

No, you can’t buy the album. (Actually, maybe you can. See below.) But the Muddy Waters Day recording features the man born McKinley Morganfield at his finest, from the rollicking opener, “Caledonia,” to his stinging slide guitar on “Long Distance Call,” to his hits: “Mannish Boy,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and, of course, his signature song, “Got My Mojo Working.” Waters grew up in Mississippi, the birthplace of the blues, and later moved to Chicago, where he was among the first blues musicians to go electric.

I’d long since ceased to have anything I could play the cassette on. But last year I bought a cheap little machine that converts old cassettes into MP3s. The tape was in better shape than I had imagined, and so now I can listen to it all over again. (To my surprise, it looks like you can buy it, along with a concert he gave at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960.)

Why no actual albums? Years ago I picked up the Johnny Winters-produced “Hard Again” as well as the Chess three-CD anthology. Good stuff, but just not as good. There was also a huge plus factor to the Paul’s Mall concert — I got to see him and his band the following night. So the tape — now an MP3 — also serves as a memento of a special night.

Waters was 63 when we saw him — an old man, we thought, though a little younger than I am now. He played for about half of a very long show, with his band taking the rest of it without him.

Toward the end of the night, he came up behind us and sat down as he waited to go back on stage. My friend and I suddenly realized we were in the presence of royalty. “Play ‘Mojo’!” my friend said excitedly. “Aw, you don’t want to hear that shit,” he replied.

He played “Mojo.” How could he not?

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The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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