BIG JOE WILLIAMS: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1935-1941; 1991)
1) Little Leg Woman; 2) Somebody's Been Borrowing That Stuff; 3) Providence Help The Poor People; 4) 49 Highway Blues; 5) My Grey Pony; 6) Stepfather Blues; 7) Baby Please Don't Go; 8) Stack O' Dollars; 9) Wild Cow Blues; 10) Worried Man Blues; 11) I Know You Gonna Miss Me; 12) Rootin' Ground Hog; 13) Brother James; 14) I Won't Be In Hard Luck No More; 15) Crawlin' King Snake; 16) I'm Getting Wild About Her; 17) Peach Orchard Mama; 18) Meet Me Around The Corner; 19) Throw A Boogie Woogie; 20) North Wind Blues; 21) Please Don't Go; 22) Highway 49; 23) Someday Baby; 24) Break 'Em On Down.
What is Big Joe Williams' personal claim to fame? Supposedly there's two of them. First, he was the most notorious bluesman ever to use a one-of-a-kind nine-string guitar, making his sound impossible to replicate for those with impaired craftsman skills. Second, he was allegedly the first artist to record 'Baby Please Don't Go' and 'Crawlin' King Snake' — golden standards of the blues and blues-rock repertoire, especially the former, although, granted, it's a long path of evolution between Big Joe's version and AC/DC's.
Both of these claims to fame may and, perhaps, should be witnessed on this album, which faithfully collects everything the man recorded for the Bluebird label as the man's country was marching through Depression and on to war. Ironically, once you do hear the album, you begin to understand that neither of the claims translates to a musical revelation. The original 'Baby Please Don't Go', backed with a homebrewn fiddle part and wobbly hands-and-feet percussive rhythms, turns out to have been merely one of the innumerable variations on a traditional folk dance tune (the "baby please don't go" verse may have been authored by Joe, but immediately afterwards he launches into the much older "turn your lights down low" sequence), as is 'Crawlin' King Snake', which, as the track listing shows, began its life as 'Rootin' Ground Hog' — if it makes you wonder what in the world made the former popular and the latter unknown, just try imagine Jim Morrison, thirty-five years later, singing "I'm a rootin' ground hog, and I'm a-rootin' both night and day" instead of "I'm the crawlin' king snake, and I rule my den" (actually, Jim used John Lee Hooker's version, which rewrote the original lines completely).
Same thing with the nine string guitar: the extra strings may be making the sound a bit different, but not to the extent of making it completely stand out from the rest, at least, not for the common ear. There are conflicting accounts as to whatever made him do it — such as breaking a peg on a guitar he was unable to replace and modifying it with an additional flange with four pegs; or, even more probable, intentionally tampering with the instrument so that nobody would be tempted to steal it, in the good old cash-hungry Depression days. In any case, it was a curious gimmick that influenced the sound without revolutionizing it.
So what's the big deal at all? The big deal is that Big Joe Williams is probably the most natural predecessor to the dark-devil-blues of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, both of which have covered his songs and, overall, must have been seriously inspired by his attitudes. His playing is not «virtuoso», but he uses his guitar in many ways, never giving a damn about clean melodic lines: his own inspiration must have been Blind Lemon Jefferson, with his well-known disdain for following restrictions. His guitar «rings» and «wails» not any more often than it pounds and prances, going from blues to boogie and back in a jiffy, derailing and confusing the senses.
Lyrically and thematically, Big Joe's songs are a «menace»: not somber-apocalyptic à la Charley Patton or ecstatically-apocalyptic à la Son House, no, Big Joe was way too grounded for that kind of stuff, but he was a dangerous man, and usually sang songs from that point of view. No light entertainment here; this is not music to get cuddly and comfortable to (and, contrary to occasional popular beliefs, far from all original acoustic Delta blues is creepy as hell), although Big Joe's voice is high and clean enough to contribute to the lack of comfort — on that scale, he could never compete with Patton, or with John Lee Hooker, for that matter.
This combination of factors is enough to respect Big Joe for being a separate link in his own rights in the blues chain rather than an insubstantial imitator of somebody else's greatness. Plus, the quality of these Bluebird recordings is pretty strong, and on some of the tracks he is accompanied by the harmonica playing of his biggest competitor on the label, Sonny Boy Williamson (I), which is also a good boost for conaisseurs.
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