Friday, April 21, 2023

Big Joe Williams - Nine-String Guitar Master


A while back, I picked up a collection of Big Joe Williams' early recordings from 1945 - 1961 on Jasmine Records.  I had previously owned some of his recordings on Arhoolie not long after I started listening to the blues (on cassette) and even though I really enjoyed those sides, I had not ever revisited his work, other than the occasional appearance on an anthology set here and particular reason for that, just never got around to it.  

Over the years, I've read stories about him.  I liked Dick Waterman's reminiscences in his book Between Midnight and Day:  The Last Unpublished Blues Archive (which I highly recommend for the stories and Waterman's accompanying pictures), but what really got my attention was Mike Bloomfield's book Me and Big Joe, which recounted some of the late guitarist's harrowing adventures with the blues legend.  From that point, I decided to backtrack and learn a little more about Williams and it's an interesting story.

Williams was born in 1903 near Crawford, MS, which is located about halfway between Meridian and Tupelo on the eastern side of the state (also birthplace of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and former NBA player Clarence Weatherspoon).  He started playing as a youth on street corners, bars, alleys, work camps, etc.......ending up with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and actually recording with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930.  He ended up in St. Louis a few years later, where he recorded with Bluebird Records, as a front man and backing others such as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Robert Nighthawk.  It was while he was with Bluebird that he recorded "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Crawlin' Kingsnake," both of which have become blues standards and have been recorded by hundreds of other acts in blues and rock.  Williams recorded frequently over the next five decades for a variety of labels....Vocalion, Okeh, Paramount, Prestige, Delmark, Arhoolie, and others.  

He played a nine-string guitar of his own design, and had a highly percussive style of playing similar to other pre-war Delta guitarists, beating on the box, neck, popping the strings and really giving his playing a distinctive style.  Blues historian Barry Lee Peterson witnessed Williams performing one night and described his electric model of the nine-string as being played through "a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that.  When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself.  The total effect of this incredible apparatus produced the most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard."  As great and unique as he was as a guitarist, he was an equally talented songwriter and vocalist.  Based on Bloomfield's book and other descriptions, he could be rather cantankerous as well, but there's no question he was a well-respected bluesman throughout his career.

Williams eventually returned to the area where he was born, where he passed away in late 1982.  He was buried in a private cemetery near Crawford.  He had a headstone which was paid for by friends and fellow musicians collected at Antone's in Austin.  The Mt Zion Memorial Fund eventually got the headstone erected in October of 1994.  One of his last nine-string guitars can be viewed at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.

Although I was aware that Williams was born in Crawford.....while working about twenty-five years ago, I had to stop in the Crawford City Hall and noticed a picture of him on the wall...... I don't guess it ever occurred to me that he might have been buried in the area.  Granted, I only got into visiting grave sites in the past few years, but I finally realized that he was buried nearby, only about 80 miles from where I live between Crawford and Starkville.

A few weekends ago, I ended up with some time on my hands and thought, what the heck, I'll just see if I can find Big Joe Williams' grave, so I punched in the coordinates and was soon on my way.  It was a fairly pleasant drive....I was familiar with most, but not all of it.  There's a nice lake (Bluff Lake) located about ten miles from the gravesite on the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.  When I got to the location, Williams' headstone was easy to find.  In fact, it was the only headstone visible.  I was told that there are other graves at the site, but I didn't see any other headstones.  It really looked like a pasture with one solitary headstone present.

The town of Crawford is a few miles to the east, just off US 45 Alternate.  There's not much there these days, but there is a Mississippi Blues Trail marker near the Town Hall which is dedicated to Williams.  Crawford is a few miles south of West Point (birthplace of Howlin' Wolf) and a little over an hour south of Tupelo (birthplace of Elvis Presley).

However, I opted to go south that day because about ten miles south of Crawford, where US 45 Alternate and US 45 meet, is the town of Brooksville, home of the Ole Country Bakery, which is worth a stop if you're hungry for breakfast or lunch.  People drive from all around in Mississippi and Alabama to sample their delicious pastries, pies, loaf bread, sweet bread, sandwiches, soups, and salads.  Whenever I work in the area, I'm going to make a stop there, and I did that day as well.  You can't miss it if you're driving through Brooksville....just look for a wood-frame building with a lot of cars and trucks parked around it.

If you are in the area and you are a blues fan, it's worth the trip to visit Big Joe Williams' final resting place.  It's not hard to get there at all, the roads are good, and there are some other cool places to visit while you're in the area.  Meanwhile, here are a couple of great albums to get started with Williams.

The Original Ramblin' Bluesman 1945-1961 (Jasmine Records):  This 2 CD set includes tracks Williams recorded for the Chicago, Columbia, Bullet, Trumpet, Specialty, Vee Jay, and Folkways labels, plus previously unissued tracks for Cobra Records and eight songs never heard before on CD that Williams recorded with pianist Erwin Helfer in Chicago that were released as 2 EPs by Collector Records in London.  Not a bad track in the bunch.

Shake Your Boogie (Arhoolie Records):  This CD collects two great 60's albums Williams recorded for the label.  Charlie Musselwhite plays harmonica on some of the tracks.  Combined with the above set, this could be all the Big Joe Williams you might need for your collection, but I do encourage you to check out his 60's recordings for Testament and Delmark because they're just as strong.  All of his recordings are worth a listen.

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