Big Joe Williams & J.D. Short

Delmark DD-609


Big Joe Williams

Delmark DD-627


Optimism 2047

For many, the late Big Joe Williams was the epitome of the romantically itinerant bluesman. Born in Crawford, Mississippi, probably in 1903, he spent most of his life on the road, traveling and performing throughout the continental United States. He recorded some of the most important and widely covered sides in all of blues; perhaps the best known is “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which he cut for Bluebird in 1935.

Williams was already a rather grizzled living legend when Bob Koester of Delmark (then Delmar) Records sought him out in Saint Louis in the late 50s. The LPs that Koester recorded on Williams during this period marked the beginning of what might be called the modern phase of Williams’s career.

Williams never really became “modern,” though. Irascible and ineffable, unwilling to compromise either his music or himself, he nonetheless became a darling of the folk and blues revivalists, touring Europe several times and gigging consistently around the United States until his death in 1982. His songs portray a man gripped with restless unease who left behind him countless fractured relationships, always returning to the lure of the road. To 60s-era middle-class youth, hitchhiking around the country thinking of themselves as latter-day Woody Guthries or Jack Kerouacs, such imagery from an artist old enough to be their grandfather had an irresistible appeal.

But the constant leavings and abandonments that permeate Williams’s songs, the very fierceness of his independence, made it clear that he was far from the easygoing free spirit many imagined him to be. His was a tyrannical kind of freedom, an obsessive inability to put down roots; he seemed to be either seeking or fleeing something he couldn’t define, something alternately horrible and seductive, a psychic Medusa that tantalized the singer into abandoning security but then became a nightmare, haunting him out of his next sanctuary.

“There were trains to meet and others to board and ride; people to see and others to avoid; women both beautiful and dangerous,” wrote John Simmons in Williams’s obituary in Living Blues magazine. “Disaster of every description threatened the interstices of well-being. It could not be avoided. It was not. It happened all the time. Not for a single minute would any sane individual want to arise inside Big Joe Williams’ head.”

That sense of a driven spirit is amplified by the almost frightening intensity with which Williams performed: he growled, barked, and roared out his lyrics to the accompaniment of his famous nine-string guitar (a standard six-string instrument to which he affixed three extra strings). His fretwork could be dexterous, even subtle, but it was also fierce–notes rang out as resonantly as his voice. Williams, like many traditional bluesmen who played unaccompanied for much of their careers, never bothered to conform his timing to standard blues changes, and his tendency to speed up during the course of his songs heightened their urgency.

For all the force of his delivery, one gets the feeling that Williams, at his core, felt vulnerable. He seemed to invoke rather than exude power, as if attempting to conjure up the strength to stop moving and find peace. Yet to find peace one must first make peace, and that requires compromise. Williams was utterly unbending, and despite his travels his world was strangely circumscribed (he never learned to write even his name). A nearly claustrophobic sense of spiritual and cultural isolation characterized his life and his music. In its own way, that music was as challenging as the experiments of the most avant-garde jazzmen.

Stylistically, Williams was an heir to Charlie Patton; his playing had the percussive quality that distinguished Patton’s music, and there were echoes of Patton in Williams’s rough vocal tone as well. Williams’s voice was nearly as much a rhythm instrument as his guitar. His vocals often drifted off into mumbled asides, and he freely interspersed lyrics from half a dozen sources into one song–his thematic twists and turns could be as tortuous as his personal itineraries.

Several of Williams’s “rediscovery”-era recordings–Stavin’ Chain Blues (from the 1958 Delmar sessions) and Nine String Guitar Blues (from 1961) on Delmark, and the more recent Big Joe Williams (from the German L&R label, copyright 1983) on Optimism–have been reissued on CD. Of these, the Delmark offerings are the most interesting.

Stavin’ Chain Blues pairs Williams with his cousin J.D. Short on harmonica, second guitar, and occasional vocals. Short, a somewhat mysterious figure with a limited recorded legacy, had accompanied Williams on his original audition for Koester, and Williams brought him to one of the recording sessions. Their interaction is fascinating as much for the unlikely melding of two idiosyncratic styles as for any musical riches that result.

There’s plenty of invigorating material here, and a lot of it puts Williams’s music in its context in the southern blues tradition: “Sweet Old Kokomo” is a romp on Kokomo Arnold’s 1934 classic “Old Original Kokomo Blues,” which Arnold himself had adapted from Scrapper Blackwell’s earlier “Kokomo Blues,” and which became the prototype for Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago”; “Rambled and Wandered,” featuring Williams at his rawest and most untamed, is an especially effective elaboration on the traditional “Rolling and Tumbling” theme.

When Williams ventures into more original territory, he’s even more riveting. “Going Back to Crawford, Miss.” (improvised live in the studio, according to Koester’s liner notes) graphically portrays psychic displacement: “I woke up this morning with my mind running five different ways.”

But there are also moments when idiosyncrasy spills over into sloppiness. Perhaps Koester, still in awe of such primal artists, was hesitant to impose too much discipline. Several tunes start in mid-phrase, both men play out of tune at various times, and Short has trouble keeping up with Williams’s churning intensity. “Authenticity” of this type was all the rage in the folkie 50s, but in retrospect it seems naive and even condescending to the artists.

There’s nothing quaint, however, about the title tune, which Short sings. The outlaw Stavin’ Chain is one of a number of renegade folk heroes of African American oral tradition–bad men, desperadoes who often died in heroic gun battles or other confrontations with the law. Physically violent, sexually powerful, and threatening to the mores of polite society both black and white, they were the forerunners of rap’s ghetto gangsters. Both feared and admired, they were–and are–figures of much more complexity than many critics have given them credit for. “You can’t get down like poor old Stavin’ Chain,” challenges Short, who then adds, “Well he served time for killing a woman / Came back and served time for killing a man.” Stavin’ Chain’s presence gives the entire disc an unexpectedly contemporary feel.

Nine String Guitar Blues, recorded in 1961, showcases Williams at his most intense, and the balance between emotional immediacy and musical excellence is much more satisfying than on the earlier release. Williams’s urgent string pounding alternates with stinging upper-register slide work, and his claustrophobic alienation is on constant display: “This old house have got haunted, can’t live here no more” (“Haunted House Blues”); “The peoples talking, but they don’t know what it all about” (“Jiving the Blues”); “I got a bad mind baby, running two or three different ways” (“I Got a Bad Mind”). He signs off with “Jump, Baby–Jump!” an unusually good-timey number with hokum lyrics (“Mama got a washboard, papa got a tub”) and improvised stage patter.

The weakest of the three new re-releases is Big Joe Williams on Optimism, which is primarily composed of material Williams recorded for the German producer Siegfried Christmann in Crawford in 1978 and 1980. Christmann, who had a rather tempestuous relationship with Williams, alleged in 1981 in Living Blues that Williams’s musical abilities had deteriorated, prompting Williams to reply (in a letter he dictated to a friend and then signed with an X), “Ziggy’s a motherfuckin’ liar!”

These sides, especially the ones recorded in 1978, at least partially substantiate Christmann’s claim. Williams’s guitar sounds as if it’s warped or otherwise damaged–he muffs chords, seems unable to play in tune, and actually stops in mid-song several times, as if he were exhausted from fighting his instrument. His voice is diminished as well, although his enthusiastic harmonizing and avuncular bantering with an uncredited accompanist on some songs provide a delightful hint of familial warmth in this most stubbornly self-sufficient of men.

The 1980 cuts are stronger. Williams’s vocal prowess has returned, and his guitar work in places is almost as wild and wonderful as on the Delmark sides. The most effective offerings, though, were recorded in Germany in 1973 (“Don’t Your House Look Lonesome”) and 1977 (“Texas Blues”). Listening to these you realize what you’ve been missing: Williams snaps strings, skitters the length of the fret board, inserts odd chords as they suit him, and sings with both force and control. As always, he draws themes from his immediate surroundings (“I’m leavin’ Berlin, boy / ‘Cuz the women here don’t need no man!”), and his improvising is more exploratory here than elsewhere.

These discs are, by and large, for specialized tastes: unlike some other bluesmen whose careers were revitalized in the 60s, Big Joe Willliams made music that was not easily adaptable to any time or place but his own. In some ways he was virtually a genre unto himself (“genus–blues; species–Big Joe,” as Simmons writes in the liner notes to Nine String Guitar Blues). Today his music must be taken on its own terms, either as a museum piece or as a deeply personal statement from one of the most distinctive personalities in blues.