Big Joe Williams
A major blues vocalist and guitarist, Big Joe Williams (1903-1982) is no relation to jazz’s Joe Williams. He had a lengthy and productive career, surviving several musical eras by simply being himself.
Born in Mississippi as one of 16 children, Williams learned to play guitar at five on a homemade instrument. By the time he was 12, he left home to hobo around Mississippi, playing and singing music wherever he could. That set the pattern for his life and he fit the romantic vision of a wandering bluesman. Williams worked in Doc Bennett’s Medicine Show, toured with the Birmingham Jug Band as part of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels tent show during 1922-1924, and performed throughout the South. His early associates included Little Brother Montgomery and St. Louis Jimmy. Williams recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930 and started to record as a leader in 1935. The artistic success of his recordings did not change his lifestyle much and Williams remained a constant traveler, spending time in St. Louis (his group in 1941 included Muddy Waters), back in Mississippi, Chicago, and many points in between. As time passed, his jobs were on a higher level and his traveling evolved from hoboing on trains to taking planes to Europe, but he never watered down his passionate music. He mastered not just the conventional six-string guitar but an electric nine-string instrument.
Big Joe Williams recorded two albums’ worth of material (originally issued as Blues for 9 Strings and Studio Blues) for Bluesville on October 7, 1961, trio performances with Larry Johnson on harmonica and bassist Willie Dixon. All of that music has been reissued as the single CD Walking Blues. A solo set from the following year, Big Joe Williams at Folk City, gives today’s listeners a vivid example of what it was like to see this powerful performer in concert. 1964’s Classic Delta Blues has Williams interpreting such material as “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Crossroads Blues,” and “Terraplane Blues” in his own distinctive manner.
Big Joe Williams kept very busy until a short time before his 1982 death.