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Monday, May 9, 2011

Big Joe Williams: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2 (1945-1949)


1) Drop Down Blues; 2) Somebody's Been Worryin'; 3) Wanita; 4) Vitamin A; 5) His Spirit Lives On; 6) Baby Ple­a­se Don't Go; 7) Stack Of Dol­lars; 8) Mellow Apples; 9) Wild Cow Moan; 10) P Vine Blues; 11) Bad And Weak­hear­ted Blues; 12) King Biscuit Stomp; 13) I'm A Highway Man; 14) Banta Rooster Blues; 15) Mean Step Father Blues; 16) House Lady Blues; 17) Don't You Leave Me Here; 18) Jivin' Woman; 19) She's A Married Woman; 20) Walking Blues; 21) Atlanta Town.

The second half of the 1940s was a very unstable time for Big Joe: most of these tracks stem from but three sessions, one final piece of work for the Bluebird label in 1945, a large session for Co­lumbia in 1947, and a very small one for Bullet Records in Nashville in 1949. (The last two seg­ments on the album, defying the «complete recorded works in chronological order» ideology, are actually said to date back to 1935 — the first, and sonically very creaky, examples of Big Joe's presence on record).

Putting aside the usual criticisms (lack of diversity etc.), the first two sessions are invaluable in that they give us some of the best recorded examples of Big Joe and Sonny Boy Williamson play­ing together — in fact, Sonny Boy is always the real star on here, exploring harmonica potential as best as he can. In many ways, these tracks may be said to represent the equivalent of the Mud­dy Waters / Little Walter team a decade later — Big Joe is the big, burly, dangerous presence, and Sonny Boy is his subtler squire that does not seem to be posing as big a «threat», but in reali­ty may exercise an even higher influence on your subconscious than the Big Guy.

Quite a few of these songs follow a boogie pattern, too ('King Biscuit Stomp', etc.), with a strong, modestly thunderous rhythm session; naturally, these numbers could not hope to outdo the jump blues heroes of the time in terms of ass-kicking (what with the lack of equally strong vocalists or a big brass section), but Sonny Boy does all he can to compensate for the lack of oompah — on most of the fast-moving, rabble-rousing tracks his harp parts rock out quite strong.

In the interim, one cute historical curio is 'His Spirit Lives On', a little semi-original blues number with a bit of a gospel flair to it, dedi­cated to the memory of the freshly passed FDR; unlike the majority of mainstream «patriotic» numbers of the era, these made-on-order tributes from con­current Delta musicians are always interesting, if only because of a complete lack of pathos — Big Joe delivers lines like "he's gone, but his spirit lives on" with more or less the same attitude that he adopts for "sail on, my little honey bee, sail on", and even if that begs for the question — did he or didn't he actually give a damn about FDR? — in the end, the question is totally irrele­vant, because, regardless of the answer, it is still a much cooler way to see FDR off than any pa­thetic patriotic anthem one might have come up with instead.

The two songs from 1949 are interesting in that, for the first time, we expressly notice Big Joe's endorsement of electricity; by the mid-1950's, he would always play amplified — apparently, it suited his personality and emphasized the subtle uniqueness of his nine-string sound. He did not, however, have a lot of opportunities to record during those years: outshone by Muddy and the Chicago school, and deprived of a strong record label to back him up, from 1949 and up to 1958 his only recordings were for obscure or semi-legal labels that had no impact whatsoever, and are almost impossible to find nowadays. Even Complete Recorded Works have refrained from sea­rching — the series stops right here in 1949, ignoring the «dark years» between Big Joe's heyday as a presence on the 78 rpm market and his re-emergence as a blues veteran on the LP market ten years later.

Check "Vol. 2" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Vol. 2" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. You forgot to add, (for the non-versed - I'm sure this is a fact you already know), that this Sonny Boy Williamson is John Lee Williamson, aka Sonny Boy WIlliamson I, and not Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II.
    Incidentally, there's a famous photo of Sonny Boy with Big Joe which is usually used as the cover image in Sonny Boy compilations.

  2. Actually; "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."

  3. Which, of course, begs for the question - who's your favourite, Sonny Boy I or Sonny Boy II?

    I've always thought that Sonny Boy I paved the road for Sonny Boy II, but Sonny Boy II could kick the shit out of Sonny Boy I in five seconds. On the other hand, Sonny Boy I in his heyday looked much healthier than Sonny Boy II, and seems to have had more teeth as well. However, it may be that the less teeth you have, the more freedom you have to blow.

    1. Sonny Boy II was actually a much older man than Sonny Boy I even though they were contemporary. Alec Miller adopted John Lee Williamson's nickname in a deliberate attempt to fool the public (and cash in on John Lee Williamson's popularity) figuring since he was playing in and around Helena Arkansas he was far enough away from Chicago to get away with it. He wasn't and Sonny Boy I tried to get him to stop using the name which of course he didn't. The ironic part is that he was talented enough to make it under his own name but chose not to. He went to his grave insisting (incorrectly) that he was the original Sonny Boy Williamson.

  4. They're two different beasts, actually. Sonny Boy II was a much better songwriter, with some of the best sets of lyrics in bluesdom, and a hell of an harmonica player, with probably the best acoustic sound ever. The amount of tone variations he gets with small variations of the cupping of his hands is incredible.
    Sonny Boy I however is, I think, unjustly forgotten today, and being from the first wave of Chicago blues he was highly influential. Little Walter owed more to Sonny Boy I that to any other performer in my opinion, and to me his version of "Sloppy Drunk" is still the best I have heard. Sonny Boy I didn't completely shun his rural blues origins either - there are a couple of sides of him backed by Yank Rachell on mandolin (and Big Joe on guitar IIRC) which sound like recorded in a Southern back porch instead of in the Chicago studio they really were.

  5. Ah, and thanks, Anton - I mentally skipped that bit when I originally read that post, probably because Sonny Boy wasn't as central to the review of Vol. 1 as here.