Big Joe WILLIAMS

Big Joe WILLIAMS

R410
6,67 €
1 CD - 22 TITRES / THE GIANT OF THE 9 STRINGS GUITAR
EPM Blues collection

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Big Joe WILLIAMS


1 - Little leg woman
2 - Providence help the poor people
3 - 49 highway blues
4 - Stepfather blues
5 - Baby please don't go
6 - Wild cow blues
7 - Stack o' dollars
8 - I know you gonna to miss me
9 - Brother James. Rootin' ground hog
10 - Rootin' ground hog
11 - I won'y be in hard luck no more
12 - Meet me around the corner
13 - Crawlin' king snake
14 - I'm getting wild about her
15 - Peach orchard mama
16 - Please don(t go
17 - Break '"m on down
18 - Highway 49
19 - Someday baby
20 - His spirit lives on
21 - Vitamin A
22 - Somebody's been worryin'

Big Joe Williams' famous nine-string guitar did has much for his renown as his music. Big Joe probably did not have an instant and final revelation of this unique, original instrument he himself built. It was rather the result of trials and errors, of successive adaptations  motivated by the evolution of his music. It is probable that he first added a seventh string, then another one - the picture on the CD backcover, from a Bluebird advertisment, shows an eight-string guitar (with only the high-pitched doubled), which he curiously holds on the left side in front of the camera.
As of his rediscovery, Big Joe was always featured with a nine-string guitar. After the AFBF show  in Paris in 1968, Benoit Leroux, in the magazine 'Jazz Hot', described this famous guitar so : 'an old Supertone patched up with chatterton, band-aid and wire, a loose microphone plugged God-knows-how and three extra keys fixed to the top of the neck '. The guitar is tuned in G, in the following order : D (doubled to the unisson) - B (id) - G - D (doubled one octave higher) - G - D. (7) In later tours, Big Joe Williams was mistreating another guitar model, just as old and worn out. Finally, the photos of a concert in Holland in 1973 show him playing a "real" twelve string guitar ! To set out with one string and end up with twelve, isn't this the sign of an extraordinary life?
 
Translated by Dominique Bach
 
(1) quack remedy sellers used to employ musicians to play in parades and attract audiences.
(2) in his very large discography,  the traditional variety repertoire has little space.
(3) see St Louis Blues (EPM/Blues Collection 158392)
(4) the exact truth on these pseudo or real recordings never came out of Williams' own mouth : like many of his fellow musicians rediscovered in the 50s/60s, he enjoyed giving the young amateurs of that time tales to swallow. In that way, he would have recorded as early as 1921 in New Orleans (when there never was any session in that town at that time!), and, ten years later, in Grafton (Wisconsin), under the pseudonym King Solomon Hill. It was discovered later that the King Solomon in question was probably called Joe Holmes.
(5) During the same session, two tracks were recorded under the name Chasey Collins, supposedly the band's violin player. But upon listening, it seems dubious that the same man can sing while playing with such fierceness the unique string of his instrument. In which case the singer would be by washboard player, by the name of … Chasey Collins (Q.E.D. with no commitment!)


 

JOE LEE WILLIAMS Les personnages légendaires sont ceux qui font travailler les esprits à partir de données de base on ne peut plus floues et imprécises. Ainsi, sur une trame pleine de trous où l'on a du mal à raccorder les rares fils, l'imagination galope et laisse se dessiner de savoureux et truculents portraits qui, lorsque l'investigation se fait plus sérieuse, perdent parfois de leur éclat. Les bluesmen de jadis forment, à cause du peu de documentation rassemblée de leur vivant, des modèles de choix pour les historiens de la musique qui peuvent alors sans trop de risques "fabriquer" ces personnages de légende. Et pourtant quelques-uns d'entre eux ont vraiment existé; chacun a pu les voir, les entendre, les toucher, leur parler, les accompagner durant un bout de chemin... S'ils ont perdu de leur mystère, ils ont gagné en réalité. Mais celle-ci est souvent tellement complexe, tellement pleine de contradictions et parfois tellement invraisemblable que, loin d'aider à la reconstitution d'une vérité historique, elle ne fait qu'embrouiller un peu plus les pistes. Certaines figures de légende s'effondrent, d'autres se retrouvent sur un piédestal inattendu, quelques-unes enfin gardent leur rang car aucune vérité, aucune certitude ne viennent ternir les couleurs de leur portrait. Tel est le cas de Big Joe Williams, personnage ancré dans la réalité et qui n'a pourtant rien perdu de son aspect légendaire même si l'on sait tout, ou presque, de lui. Mais la particularité des plus grands n'est-elle pas de conserver, au plus profond d'eux-mêmes, une part de mystère? Joe Lee Williams nait dans une ferme près de Crawford, dans le Mississippi, le 16 octobre 1903 d'un père métayer mâtiné d'indien Cherokee et d'une mère qui n'a pas atteint ses quatorze ans. Il sera l'aîné, dit-on, d'une grande famille qui comptera seize enfants. Dès son plus jeune âge, il se passionne pour la musique; il écoute sa mère chanter, son grand-père Bert Logan jouer de l'accordéon, son cousin Jesse Logan de la guitare, ainsi qu'un certain Clem Ellis. Tous ces gens devaient interpréter des songs de toute sorte avec de forts accents primitifs et le petit Joe, vers cinq-six-sept ans, se confectionne une guitare à une corde avec une boîte de cigares et des sortes de fifres, instruments élémentaires dans ces régions qui témoignent bien d'une "mémoire africaine" encore très présente dans le Sud profond. En ayant soupé des sévices d'un beau-père irascible dont il se souviendra (voir Stepfather Blues), le jeune Joe, qui n'a pas un caractère commode lui non plus, quitte de gré ou de force le foyer familial vers 1917. Sa destinée se trace le long des chemins qu'il parcourt : il sera un hobo, un vagabond. Il sillonne le Mississippi, se fait embaucher dans les chantiers de déboisement, de construction de digues et de chemin de fer et s'arrange toujours, au bout de quelques jours, pour troquer la pioche et la scie contre la guitare, outil avec lequel il se révèle beaucoup plus efficace. Big Joe a d'ailleurs reconnu plus tard que, peu porté sur les durs travaux manuels, il cherchait toujours à y échapper et à exploiter de préférence ses talents de musicien, d'entertainer, voire de danseur! Il court ainsi les piques-niques, les fish fries, les soirées dansantes dans les tavernes et autres établissements de réputations plus ou moins douteuses. Encore tout jeune homme, Joe Williams fait partie, vers 1918, d'un medicine show (1) en Alabama, il séjourne en Louisiane en 1921 puis, après avoir rencontré les harmonicistes George "Bullet" Williams et Jay Bird Coleman, il intègre le Birmingham Jug Band qui tourne avec le célèbre Rabbit Foot Minstrels tent show (1) à travers l'Alabama et les régions voisines entre 1922 et 1924. L'indépendance retrouvée, c'est de nouveau les parties et le circuit des chantiers. Au cours de ses randonnées, Big Joe rencontre Little Brother Montgomery, pianiste itinérant avec qui il va faire la tournée (musicale!) de tous les bordels du Mississippi et de Louisiane. On aurait d'ailleurs aimé entendre ce que pouvait donner une telle association : d'un côté un pianiste "de maison", fin, sophistiqué, délicat, de l'autre un guitariste rural du genre rustique mais qui devait encore jouer un répertoire très varié, celui appris dans son enfance augmenté des airs de vaudeville des medicine et minstrels shows. Un répertoire qu'il abandonnera sans doute dans une large mesure lorsque son style se sera affirmé et "bluesifié" au contact des grands bluesmen du Delta, à commencer par Charley Patton qu'il rencontrera au milieu des années 20 (2). Eternel voyageur, toujours à cheval sur les bogies ou les tampons des wagons de marchandise, Big Joe s'installe pourtant à St. Louis en 1928 et cette grande cité du blues va rester son port d'attache jusqu'en 1949. Il y côtoie le pianiste Walter Davis, le guitariste J.D. Short (un cousin), le chanteur St. Louis Jimmy avec qui il anime des house rent parties et il vit avec la chanteuse locale Bessie Mae Smith (3). En 1929, un certain Joe Williams enregistre un disque à Memphis mais on n'est pas bien sûr qu'il s'agisse du même (4). Par contre, il y a plus de chances pour que le Po' Joe Williams qui grave quelques faces en décembre 1930 à Atlanta avec le Birmingham Jug Band soit bien notre homme. Insaisissable, présent ici la veille, là le lendemain, ce bourlingueur par vocation, nécessité et curiosité semble être partout à la fois : un jour dans un juke joint, un autre dans une fête campagnarde, un autre encore au coin d'une rue et toujours dans les chantiers de résineux, de térébenthine, partout où il peut monnayer ses talents, et même accessoirement en prison comme au pénitencier d'Angola (Louisiane) où, en 1932, il aurait rencontré Leadbelly. Il est à Vicksburg, aux portes du Delta en 1933 avec Honey Boy Edwards qu'il marquera profondément, en Louisiane, à Memphis et à Chicago où le traîne Bogus Ben Covington, vieille connaissance du Birmingham Jug Band, pour jouer à l'exposition "Century of Progress" en 1934. Et c'est aussi à Chicago que, grâce à Walter Davis qui lui ouvre quelques portes, Big Joe Williams grave en février 1935 ses premières "vraies" faces sous son nom face à des producteurs dubitatifs; il fallait une sacrée personnalité pour faire passer une expression aussi singulière (mais absolument pas datée ni archaïque) par les sillons du Bluebird Blues que Lester Melrose était en train de tracer. Il récidive d'ailleurs à la fin de la même année avec des Washboard Blues Singers rustiques à souhait et en profite pour déposer dans la cire un Baby Please Don't Go venu d'on ne sait trop où (d'une prison?) mais sûrement du XIXe siècle et qui aura un destin extraordinaire (5). Joe doit attendre ensuite un an et demi avant de remettre les pieds en studio, cette fois avec le chanteur-harmoniciste Sonny Boy Williamson rencontré à St. Louis à la fin de l'année 1936 et qui grave à cette occasion un Good Morning School Girl à la postérité aussi illustre (6). Williamson qui s'installe à Chicago, Henry Townsend qui demeure à St. Louis, Robert Lee McCoy et Joe Williams qui vadrouillent, Yank Rachell... forment une petite équipe qui, à contre courant mais "tirée" par l'étonnant succès commercial du premier, est en train de forger, grâce à un apport puissant et renouvelé de musique rurale, le Chicago Blues moderne que les Muddy Waters, Little Walter et McCoy lui-même (devenu Robert Nighthawk) feront résonner une dizaine d'années plus tard. Pendant ce temps, Big Joe s'en est retourné à St. Louis jouer avec Peetie Wheatstraw (vers 1939), avec Lazy Bill Lucas (vers 1940/41), avec Charley Jordan avec qui il tient un local pour les musiciens, il monte ensuite un orchestre pour travailler dans les clubs de Clarksdale (Mississippi) avec des musiciens locaux dont... McKinley Morganfield, le futur Muddy Waters, et remonte à Chicago où il grave en décembre 1941 la version "archétypique" de Please Don't Go en compagnie de Sonny Boy Williamson avec qui se crée instantanément une véritable complicité par l'intensité du dialogue musical expressif que se livrent l'harmonica virtuose et la guitare puissamment rythmée. Toutes ses séances suivantes, pour Bluebird (RCA) puis pour Columbia, Big Joe les réalisera avec Sonny Boy jusqu'à fin 1947, quelques mois avant la mort violente du grand harmoniciste. Contrairement à beaucoup de ses confrères qui sont entrés dans une quasi retraite, Big Joe Williams est l'un des premiers bluesmen traditionnels à être découverts par le public blanc et le tout jeune Bob Koester l'enregistre à St. Louis en 1957 et 1958, inaugurant ainsi son label Delmar(k). De nouvelles perspectives s'ouvrent à lui. Cet homme fier qui, dans les villes du Sud ségrégationnistes, préférait circuler sur le trottoir d'en face pour ne pas avoir à descendre de celui où marchait le Blanc, investit sans aucun complexe les scènes des grands festivals de folk, de jazz, de blues, des universités renommées, des salles de concert prestigieuses (Carnegie Hall en 1962 et 1965), participe à des films, des émissions de télévision, effectue de nombreuses tournées au Canada, en Europe (American Folk Blues Festival 1963, 1968, 1972, Chicago Blues Festival 1971, puis en 1973, en 1977...), au Japon et on se souvient de son impressionnante silhouette, de sa présence, lui qui entrait péniblement sur scène appuyé sur une latte de bois en guise de canne et... n'en sortait plus tellement les ovations du public multipliaient les rappels qu'il acceptait fort volontiers. Son visage rude, buriné, marqué par la vie, ne souriait pourtant pas exagérément, Big Joe Williams n'avait pas besoin de jouer les Oncle Tom pour être. De jeunes chanteurs comme Bob Dylan (qui enregistrera pour la première fois avec lui en 1962), Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, le suivront un temps dans ses pérégrinations, il s'attachera à eux tout en leur menant parfois la vie dure. Après une vie "mouvementée", après avoir laissé des plages magnifiques de sa musique sur quelques dizaines de microsillons 33 tours, Big Joe était revenu s'installer près de Crawford, sa région natale. Bien que très handicapé par l'obésité et le diabète, il avait choisi de vivre dans une caravane stationnée sur un lopin de terre pour, disait-il, "être toujours prêt à partir". Malgré son invalidité, il se produisait toujours et ce n'est que quelques semaines après un dernier concert à Memphis qu'il s'est éteint à Macon, dans le Mississippi, le 17 décembre 1982. Big Joe Williams est l'une des plus illustres figures de l'histoire du blues. Il n'a jamais accepté l'oubli, la fatalité, il ne s'est jamais résigné. Il a sans doute découvert très tôt que sa vie serait un combat et a décidé de le mener sans relâche. C'est pourquoi il s'est parfaitement intégré dans le circuit du blues revival sans faire la moindre concession musicale et sans rien ajouter au "pittoresque" naturel de son personnage. On ne le manœuvrait pas facilement. Illettré mais instruit par une existence rude qui, tous comptes faits, lui aura apporté beaucoup car il savait y puiser les réelles richesses, il a su intelligemment chercher plus loin que les vapeurs d'alcool et la fumée des clubs qui constituent trop souvent le seul univers des musiciens. Attentif à la condition de son peuple, à l'évolution sociale, il suivait de près l'action de Martin Luther King. Big Joe avait compris comment déjouer les pièges du show business et, malgré ou grâce à sa forte personnalité, il s'était trouvé une place de choix dans le monde du blues, avait su la défendre et la conserver et possédait un conscience réelle de sa valeur. Treize ans après sa disparition, l'image de ce bluesman hors du commun, à la rondeur plus rude que bonhomme, à l'abord intimidant, au caractère forgé par la dureté de la vie, à la fois bourru et avenant car vrai et intelligent, cette image demeure étonnamment présente. D'un coup ses photos s'animent grâce à ses yeux pétillants, immédiatement vit sa voix, résonnent sa musique, ses chants reconnaissables entre mille et qui demeurent à jamais gravés dans la mémoire et l'histoire du blues. La guitare de Big Joe La fameuse guitare à neuf cordes de Big Joe Williams a fait autant que sa musique pour la réputation du bluesman. Cet instrument unique, original, bricolé par lui-même, Big Joe n'en a sans doute pas eu la révélation immédiate et définitive. Cette guitare est plutôt le résultat de tâtonements et d'adaptations successives motivés par l'évolution de sa musique. Il est probable qu'il ajouta d'abord une septième corde, puis une huitième — la photo reproduite au recto du CD, tirée d'une publicité Bluebird, montre une guitare à huit cordes (seules les deux plus aigües sont doublées). Il est donc probable que les premières faces ici reproduites font entendre le guitariste sur un tel instrument. Une seconde photo, probablement postérieure, montre, elle, une guitare à dix cordes (seules les deux plus graves ne sont pas doublées) qu'il tient curieusement "à gauche" devant l'objectif. A partir de sa redécouverte, Big Joe est toujours montré jouant d'une guitare à neuf cordes. Après son passage à Paris lors de l'AFBF 1968, Benoît Leroux décrivait dans Jazz Hot cette fameuse guitare, une vieille Supertone rafistolée avec du chatterton, du sparadrap et du fil de fer, un micro branlant branché on se demande comment et trois clés supplémentaires fixées en haut du manche. La guitare est accordée en sol selon l'ordre suivant : Ré (doublée à l'unisson) - Si (même chose) - Sol - Ré (doublée à l'octave supérieur) - Sol - Ré (7). Lors de tournées postérieures, Big Joe Williams maltraitait un autre modèle de guitare, tout aussi vétuste et usé. Enfin, les photos d'un concert hollandais en 1973 le montrent en train de jouer sur une "vraie" guitare à douze cordes! Partir d'une corde pour arriver à douze, n'est-ce-pas le signe ultime d'une vie extraordinaire? Jean Buzelin Avertissement : La haute technologie des compacts, de la lecture laser et des enregistrements numériques, ne doit pas faire oublier l’inestimable valeur de certains enregistrements des année20, 30 ou 40…, tant par leur aspect « témoignage » que par la valeur des participants. Legendary figures are those who make the mind operate on very vague and imprecise basic data. Thuswise, imagination gallops on a weft full of holes where it is hard to connect the scarce threads, revealing succulent and savory portraits which at times loose their glitter upon deeper investigation. Because of the little data gathered during their lifetime, old time bluesmen are choice models for music historians who, without too much risk, can "build" these legends. Yet, some of them really existed. People could see them, hear them, touch them, speak to them, go part of the way with them… What they lost in mystery, they won in reality. But that reality is often so complex, so full of contradictions and at times so improbable that, far from helping restore historical truth, it only muddles things even more. Some legendary figures fall to pieces, others find themselves on an unexpected pedestal and a few retain their rank, with no truth or certitude to tarnish the colours of their portraits. Such is the case of Big Joe Williams, a personage anchored in reality yet who's lost nothing of the legend even though we know just about everyhting on him. But isn't it the specialty of great men to preserve, deep within themselves, a part of mystery? Joe Lee Williams was born in a farm near Crawford, Mississippi, on October 16th, 1906, to a partly Cherokee father, who worked as a sharecropper, and a barely 14 year old mother. He was to be the oldest of a big family of sixteen children. The child soon took a passion for music. He heard his mother sing, his grandfather Bert play accordion, his cousin Jesse play guitar, and a certain Clem Ellis. All these people probably sang all kinds of songs with strong, primitive, accents and little Joe, sometime between the age of 5 and 7, built himself a one-string guitar from a cigar box, as well as kinds of fifes - the basic instrument in those regions, witnessing the strong presence of an "African memory" in the deep South. Fed up with the brutality of his irrascible stepfather, whom he was to remember later (Stepfather Blues), young Joe, who also had his temper, left home - willy-nilly - around 1917. His destiny ran out along the roads he wandered as a hobo. He worked his way throughout Mississipi in deforestation, dyke or railway construction yards; and he soon managed to trade his pickaxe or his saw for a guitar, a tool he used with much better skill. For that matter, Big Joe recognized later that, little inclined to hard manual labour, he always tried to avoid it, rather exploiting his talent as a musician, an entertainer, a dancer even! He thus tried picnics, fish fries or balls in various taverns or other establishements of sometimes dubious fame. Still a young man, Joe Williams joined a medicine show (1) In Alabama in 1918, sojourned in Louisiana in 1921 and, after meeting harmonicists George "Bullet" Williams and Jay Bird Coleman, joined the Birmingham Jug Band. They toured with the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels tent show, throughout Alabama and the neighbouring regions, from 1922 to1924. Once free again, he went back to the parties and workyard circuit. During these trips, Big Joe met Little Brother Montgomery, an intinerant piano player with whom he toured in all the Missisipi and Louisiana brothels. Such an association must have been quite something : on one side a "house" pianist, refined, sophisticated, delicate, on the other a rural, rustic guitar player with a probably large and various repertoire, including what he had learned in his childhood plus the vaudeville tunes of the medicine and minstrels shows. A repertoire he would abandon most of with the assertion of his style as well as the more bluesy turn it took at the contact of the Delta's great bluesmen, starting with Charley Patton, whom he met in the mid-twenties. (2) An eternal traveller, always riding on the bogies or buffers of freight trains, Big Joe nevertheless settled in St Louis in 1928, and that great city of the blues remained his home port until 1949. He played along with pianist Walter Davis, guitarist J.D. Short (a cousin) and singer St Louis Jimmy, with whom he perfomed in house rent parties, while living with the local singer, Bessie Mae Smith. (3) In 1929, a certain Joe Williams recorded an album in Memphis, but it is not sure it is the same Joe Williams. (4) On the other hand, there are more chances that the Po' Joe WiIliams who cut a few record sides in Dec 1930 in Atlanta, with the Birmingham Jug Band, was our man. Elusive, here one day, there the other, this rolling stone by inclination, necessity and curiosity seemed to be everywhere at once : one day in a juke joint, another in a country party, another still at the corner of a street and always on pine trees or turpentine working sites, everywhere where he could earn something for his talent, and even, if need be, in jail - for example the penitentiary of Angola (Louisiana) where he is said to have met Leadbelly in 1932. In 1933, he was in Vicksburg, at the gates of the Delta, with Honey Boy Edwards - on whom he left a strong mark, in 1934, in Louisiana, Memphis and finally Chicago where Bogus Ben Covington, an old buddy from the Birmingham Jug Band, had dragged him, to play at the "Century of Progress" exhibition. Chicago is also where, in Feb 1935, thanks to Walter Davis who opened him a few doors, Big Joe Williams cut the first records in his name - facing dubitative producers : it did take quite a character to pass on such a singular expression (but in no way dated or archaic) through the grooves of the Bluebird Blues that Lester Melrose was tracing. Moreover, he did it again at the end of the same year, with the rustic-to-perfection Washboard Blues Singers and on this occasion he engraved a Baby Please Don't Go coming from God knows where - a jail house? - but probably from the XIXth century, which was to have an uncommon fate. (5) Joe then had to wait another year and a half before setting foot in a studio again. This time it was with singer-harmonicist Sonny Boy Williamson, encountered in St Louis at the end of year 1936: they recorded Good Morning School Girl of equal fame. (6) Williamson, who had settled in Chicago, Henry Townsend, who lived in St Louis, Robert Lee McCoy and Joe Williams, still wandering about, Yank Rachell… this small team - against the current but pulled by the astounding commercial success of the first one and thanks to a powerful and renewed contribution from rural music - was forging the modern Chicago Blues style, which the likes of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and McCoy himself (under the name Robert Nighthawk) would reverberate some ten years later. Meanwhile, Big Joe had gone back to St Louis, to play with Peetie Wheatstraw (around 1939), Lazy Bill Lucas (around 1940/41), Charley Jordan - with whom he ran a practice room for musicians; he then formed an orchestra, to work the clubs of Clarksdale (Mississippi), with local musicians, among whom… McKinley Morganfield, the future Muddy Waters. He went back to Chicago in Dec 41, and recorded the 'archetype' version of Please Don't Go, with Sonny Boy Williamson. Instant and true complicity arose from the intenseness of the expressive musical dialogue between the virtuoso harmonica and the powerful rhythm of the guitar. Big Joe did all the following sessions - first for Bluedbird (RCA), then for Columbia - with Sonny Boy, until late in the year 1947, a few months before the violent death of the great harmonicist. Big Joe Williams did not manage too bad in the musical upheaval of the afterwar. He was full or resources and, rather than adapt himself, proved able to impose his irreductible art form in embryo, finding small local record companies which tried to make up for the lack of interest of bigger labels. In his community there remained audiences, mostly rural, for that type of music and Big Joe recorded for Chicago (sic) in Chicago (1945): His spirit lives on - featured on this CD - then for Bullet (1949) and Baul (1951/52) in St Louis, for Trumpet (1951) in Jackson, for Specialty (1952) in Shreveport, for Vee Jay (1956) in Chicago… Contrary to many of his colleagues who had almost retired, Big Joe Williams was one of the first traditional bluesmen to be discovered by white audiences and the young Bob Koester recorded him in St Louis in 1957 and 58, thus starting his Delmak label. New perspectives were opening to him. In southern, segregationist, cities, this proud man would walk on the other side rather than have to step down the sidewalk to give way to the white man. And there he was, investing the stages of the great folk, jazz and blues festivals, of renowned colleges, of the most prestigious venues (Carnegie Hall , 1962 and 1965) , without the slightest complex. He appeared on films and TV, toured extensively in Canada, Europe (American Folk Blues Festival 1963, 1968, 1972, Chicago Blues Festival 1970, tours in 1973, 1977…), Japan, leaving the imprint of his impressive silhouette, of his great presence. He would walk on stage with difficulty, with a wooden slat for a walking stick but later he could not leave, so loud were the ovations and the encores he easily agreed to do. Yet his rough, seamed, marked-by-life face was not over-smiling. Big Joe Williams did not need to play Uncle Tom to be. Young singers like Bob Dylan (who first recorded with him in 1962), Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, followed him for a while in his peregrinations. He was fond of them but could also give them a hard time. After an eventful life, with marvellous tracks of music left on dozens of Lps, Big Joe came back and settled around Crawford, his native region. Although he was very handicapped by his obesity and diabete, he chose to live in a caravan parked on a piece of land, "to always be ready to leave". Despite his invalidity, he went on performing and it is barely a few weeks after a last concert in Memphis, that he passed away in Macon, Mississippi, on 17th december, 1982. Big Joe Williams was one of the most illustrious figures in the history of blues. He never accepted oblivion nor fate, he never gave up. He had probably found out at a very early age that his life would be a struggle and he decided to fight it without respite. This is why he perfectly integrated the blues revival circuit, without any musical concession, without adding to his natural picturesqueness of character. He was not easily manoeuvred. He was illiterate but educated by a hard life which, in the end, brought him a lot - because he could draw its real richness; he had the intelligence to look further than the clubs' spirit fumes and smoke, which are often the only universe of musicians. Attentive to the condition of his people and to social evolution, he closely followed Martin Luther King's action. Big Joe had understood how to thwart the traps of showbusiness; despite - or thanks to - his strong temper, he had found a place of choise in the world of blues, which he managed defending and keeping, and he had a true conscience of his worth. Thirteen years after his death, the image of this uncommon bluesman - his round shape more rough than good-natured and at first intimidating, his character forged by the harshness of life, uncouth and pleasing at the same time because it was true and intelligent - this image is constantly present. All of a sudden, thanks to his sparkling eyes, his photos come to life and immediately his voice is alive, his music resounding, his songs recognizable among all and forever ingraved in the memory and the history of blues. Big Joe's music The period presented on this CD covers a very large selection of the first ten years of Joe Williams' career, that of the Bluebird Race Records . As soon as 1935, his art had reached its full maturity. His style, unique in the history of blues, is of course deeply rooted in the Delta : the polyrhythms of Charley Patton, the syncopea, the deep accents and, in contrast, the falsetto of Tommy Johnson, the richness of a repertoire partly borrowing from the tradition but totally recreated by the author. His pieces abound in split rhythms (Wild Cow Blues), breaks (Providence Help the Poor People, Somebody's Been Worryin'), crushes, ruptures (Stepfather Blues), syncopeas (Little Leg Woman, Brother James), suspended phrases (Please Don't Go), carried by an unbelievable drive reinforced by riff chords (Highway 49) and the irresistible slapping on the bass string (Little Leg Woman, Wild Cow, Crawlin' King Snake, I'm Getting Wild About Her, Peach Orchard Mama). Thanks to his curiosity and openeness to other universes (for exemple the city and ghetto of St Louis), Williams adds to this common rural root basis his own musical and literary elements, which become as many new strings as those he adds to his guitar. Providence Help the Poor People, dealing with the economical crisis, (Mean) Stepfather, refering to his life experience, Highway 49, about travelling, Crawlin' King Snake with its implications, Stack O'Dollars, inspired by Sleepy John Estes, Peach Orchard Mama… are as many pieces which one could think final yet which are constantly reworked : compare both versions of Highway 49, Baby Please Don't Go, Somebody's Been Worryin''; (3) they have evolved with the singer. Yet his art, rough and uncut as it is, has a kind of fullness, a mastering (in both sound and rhythm) which gives it a final, accomplished character. Big Joe invented his music, his lyrics, his blues, like he invented his instrument. To say that his guitar accompanies or answers to his voice is inaccurate : it fights with it, provokes it, pushes it to anwser with firmness, roughness, vehemence, at times anger - while the left arm shakes the neck of the guitar, while the right hand strikes the strings brutally and pulls on the bass one which slaps violently on the box, while the big podgy fingers painfully pluck the high pitch double strings to make them utter sharp cries. But violence is not gratuitous, it is only the transposition, through a strong 'personality', of reality itself, and the least of surprises is not, in such an uneven musical journey, to discover the melody - to hear the singing. Big Joe's guitar. Big Joe Williams' famous nine-string guitar did has much for his renown as his music. Big Joe probably did not have an instant and final revelation of this unique, original instrument he himself built. It was rather the result of trials and errors, of successive adaptations motivated by the evolution of his music. It is probable that he first added a seventh string, then another one - the picture on the CD backcover, from a Bluebird advertisment, shows an eight-string guitar (with only the high-pitched doubled), which he curiously holds on the left side in front of the camera. As of his rediscovery, Big Joe was always featured with a nine-string guitar. After the AFBF show in Paris in 1968, Benoit Leroux, in the magazine 'Jazz Hot', described this famous guitar so : 'an old Supertone patched up with chatterton, band-aid and wire, a loose microphone plugged God-knows-how and three extra keys fixed to the top of the neck '. The guitar is tuned in G, in the following order : D (doubled to the unisson) - B (id) - G - D (doubled one octave higher) - G - D. (7) In later tours, Big Joe Williams was mistreating another guitar model, just as old and worn out. Finally, the photos of a concert in Holland in 1973 show him playing a "real" twelve string guitar ! To set out with one string and end up with twelve, isn't this the sign of an extraordinary life? Translated by Dominique Bach (1) quack remedy sellers used to employ musicians to play in parades and attract audiences. (2) in his very large discography, the traditional variety repertoire has little space. (3) see St Louis Blues (EPM/Blues Collection 158392) (4) the exact truth on these pseudo or real recordings never came out of Williams' own mouth : like many of his fellow musicians rediscovered in the 50s/60s, he enjoyed giving the young amateurs of that time tales to swallow. In that way, he would have recorded as early as 1921 in New Orleans (when there never was any session in that town at that time!), and, ten years later, in Grafton (Wisconsin), under the pseudonym King Solomon Hill. It was discovered later that the King Solomon in question was probably called Joe Holmes. (5) During the same session, two tracks were recorded under the name Chasey Collins, supposedly the band's violin player. But upon listening, it seems dubious that the same man can sing while playing with such fierceness the unique string of his instrument. In which case the singer would be by washboard player, by the name of … Chasey Collins (Q.E.D. with no commitment!) (6) see Sonny Boy Williamson, Vol 1 (EPM/Blues Collection 157602) (7) in 'Jazz Hot' Magazine, n° 251, June 1969

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