Sunday, March 14, 2010

March 14: Muddy Waters, "I've Got My Mojo Working"

Artist: Muddy Waters
Song: "I've Got My Mojo Working"
Album: At Newport
Year: 1960

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Part 1) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Part 2) (will open in new tab)

Certain moments in music history are truly indefinable, as the impact of these events forever shaped every bit of music that followed.  Whether it was Ike Turner using his busted amplifier, and recording the first “feedback,” or Johnny Cash being, well, Johnny Cash, one simply cannot overstate the pivotal role that these events served.  Then of course, there was the event that forever changed blues, jazz, and countless other genres: The 1960 Newport Jazz Festival.  Though at face value, the lineup may seem nothing out of the ordinary, there was one act on the bill that does not really “fit” within the traditional idea of jazz music: Muddy Waters.  Many today point to Waters’ performance at the festival as the turning point for the blues genre, as it was here that “the masses” got their first exposure to the power and joy that could be found within the music.  While listening to the recording, which was captured on the aptly titled, At Newport album, one can hear the crowd begin a bit unsure of how to react, but by the end, it is an all-out party at the stage.  As Waters brings his set to a close, he proves to be ever the showmen, as he brings out the rocking and rolling number, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” which he had recorded a few years earlier.  By the end of the song, the crowd is so completely enthralled that they demand an encore, and Waters treats them to a reprise of the song, and the combined pair forever cemented Waters’ place as a true music legend.

While the recording is from a live performance, one should be thankful that someone was wise enough to capture Waters’ entire set with soundboard quality.  Obviously, nobody could have predicted what a landmark performance it would turn out to be, but the record is so high quality, that one can easily feel the amazing mood that ran throughout the set.  The song itself is rather simple, as it follows a basic 1-4-5 progression, and yet it jumps and bumps with the finest rock songs in history.  With nothing more than Waters and his guitar, harmonica, a drummer, and a piano player, the group proves that, as always, volume rarely tops presence.  Kicking off with a brilliant piano riff, the song is instantly in top gear, as drummer Francis Clay provides a perfect, swinging backbeat throughout the entire song.  Harmonica-master, James Cotton provides a fantastic counterpart to Waters’ guitar and singing throughout the entire tune, and the chemistry between the pair remains largely unrivaled.  Truth be told, the entire group is brilliantly in sync, and though there are plenty of improvisations, the song never loses track or any power.  In fact, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” has a fantastic “end of the show” feeling to it, and it remains one of the greatest final songs ever captured on record.  The fact that the crowd brings him back for an encore is mind-boggling, as blues music simply had not “hit” outside of the South and Chicago at that point, but the band is more than happy to treat the crowd to another round of the song, which is just as much a joy for all involved.

“I’ve Got My Mojo Working” was actually written long before Muddy Waters recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly litigated songs in history.  The song was actually written by Preston Foster, and famously performed by Ann Cole which is where Waters first heard the song.  Waters altered the lyrics slightly and attempted to copyright this “second” version.  For years, the sides went back and forth or the legality, and in the end, both songs were given separate copyrights.  While the studio recording that caused this legal battle is fantastic, it simply cannot compare to the power that is found in the At Newport version.  Waters voice has rarely sounded better, as he schools the audience with this unmistakable sound, bringing equal amounts of soul and delight.  It is also within this live performance that one becomes aware of the amazing stage presence of Waters, as he clearly has the entire crowd in the palm of his hand, and in some ways, after hearing the “first” part of the song, the encore call is a bit less surprising.  Waters truly shows off every part of his phenomenal voice, and it is moments like “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” where he makes his case as one of the greatest performers of all time.  Though the song is best known as the breakthrough moment for jazz, the overall performance of Muddy Waters was also unquestionably a lesson to all other bluesmen in “how” to blow away an audience.

One of the most difficult things about historical moments, is that a majority of them do not receive such a title until AFTER they have occurred.  This often presents a large issue when it comes to properly documenting said event, and in most cases, the recounting are second hand, or at the least, questionable.  However, back in 1960, there was thankfully someone with the foresight to “hit record” when Muddy Waters hit the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival, and what followed forever altered the musical landscape.  With Waters winning over the audience quickly, blues exploded across the world, and after hearing the recording, released as At Newport, one can understand why he had such a massive impact.  While there is not a bad moment anywhere on the recording, it is the final few minutes of his set, where he trots out “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” that certainly sent the audience home with something to talk about.  Each of the members of the band are completely tuned in to one another, and this song not only made headway for blues, but one cannot deny the rock and roll feel that the song also possesses.  From the high-octane music to Waters’ stunning stage presence, one simply must experience “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” firsthand to properly appreciate and understand why it demands such an exalted place within the long history of recorded music.

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