Big Joe Williams; vocal, Nine-string guitar, bottleneck guitar.
With contributions by Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson, harmonica; Henry Townsend, guitar; Robert “Nighthawk” Lee McCoy, guitar and others…
Genre: Mississippi Country Blues
Informatice booklet notes by Bob Groom.
Big Joe Williams, was born in Mississippi, most likely in October, 1903 At one time it was customary to regard Big Joe Williams as a good journeyman blues singer but not of the first rank, like a Patton, Jefferson or McTell. That he was a survivor who, by the late sixties, had already made a lot of records probably worked against his reputation. However, by any assessment, his first session and indeed all of his Bluebird recordings, require a radical reappraisal of his position in the Blues Pantheon. This most impressive debut session has the impact of a Bukka White on Vocalion/Okeh or John Estes on Champion/Decca. For four decades Joe featured his unique, patched-up nine string guitar but on his first recordings he was still playing a conventional six-string guitar in a complex style that meshed excitingly with fellow St. Louis guitarist Henry Townsend’s playing.
Little Leg Woman is full of rhythmic shifts and dynamics, including a distinctive bass slap that adds emphasis. The song is related to “Mama Don’t Allow No Stayin’ Out All Night Long”, recorded by Bukka White and Robert Lee McCoy, amongst others, and “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes. In contrast, Somebody’s Been Borrowing That Stuff is a fast-tempo, near frenetic barrelhouse piece with Joe and Henry Townsend contrasting an amazing two-guitar duet accompaniment that leaves the listener breathless. Providence Help The Poor People has socially conscious lyrics with Joe expressing an unusual attitude to President Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Again, his guitar work is quite stunning.
49 Highway Blues was one of Joe’s strongest songs and this first version is definitive. The guitar accompaniment surges between verses with heavy bass accents behind the vocal. My Grey Pony shows the influence of Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” but Joe’s is a distinctly different conception of the piece. Concluding the first session is the bitter Stepfather Blues, in which Joe vehemently denounces the “mean stepfather” who put him on the road at an early age, declaring “he’s a no good weed, the cows won’t even mow him down”. When Joe returned to the recording studio in October 1935, he was the leader of a little pick-up band consisting of Joe on guitar, Chasey Collins (washboard) and a one-string fiddle player known as “Dad” Tracy. Their first recording was Baby Please Don’t Go, a blues Joe may have derived from an earlier field holler (“Another Man Done Gone”), and which became his “trademark” song. A striking piece, it was later recorded by many other blues singers, including Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, and a version by pop group Them was a UK Top Ten hit in 1965. Stack O’ Dollars is a powerful rendition of a piece previously recorded by Sleepy John Estes (May 1930) and Yank Rachel (February 1934), while Wild Cow Blues raucously reworks Kokomo Arnold’s tremendous 1934 hit “Milk Cow Blues” with touches of Charley Patton’s “Jersey Bull Blues”. Worried Man Blues utilises the “Roll and Tumble” tune.
A different sound again marks Joe’s 1937 session, on which he is joined by Tennessee harmonica player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (about to embark on his own immensely successful recording career) and Robert Lee McCoy (later to become known as Robert Nighthawk, slide guitarist extraordinaire), who plays the fluid guitar lines over which Joe’s doubled treble strings ring out. I Know You’re Gonna Miss Me, with its emphatic vocal, parallels “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” recorded by Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress (1942) and Aristocrat (1948). Rootin’ Ground Hog is related to Washboard Sam’s “Prowlin’ Ground Hog” and other similar blues. Brother James graphically recounts the circumstances of a fatal car wreck in the Delta a week before the recording session.At this time Joe and Charlie Jordan were running a rehearsal club in St. Louis and I Know I Won’t Be In Hard Luck Anymore contains several references to that city – “the snitches and the polices”, reminiscent of an earlier James “Stump “Johnson blues and “Polock Town”.
Surprisingly, it was four years before Bluebird recorded Joe again, this time supported only by an unobtrusive string bass player; who he all but overwhelmed with the powerful sound of his nine-string guitar. Crawlin’ King Snake was not only a hit for Joe but also became popular in an OKeh version by Tony Hollins, recorded two months after, and was successfully revived by John Lee Hooker on Modern and Vee-Jay a decade later. I’m Gettin’ Wild About Her reuses the “Somebody’s Been Borryin” tune while Peach Orchard Mama pays tribute to Blind Lemon Jefferson, who recorded it for Paramount in 1929. Meet Me Around The Corner makes for interesting comparison with East Coast artists like Blind Boy Fuller and Brownie McGhee, who also recorded this piece as “Boots And Shoes” and “Too Nicey Mama” respectively.
Joe was reunited with Sonny Boy Williamson on record in December 1941. Two titles from this session remained were unissued. Throw A Boogie Woogie is similar to Sonny Boy’s 1946 “Shake The Boogie” while North Wind Blues has a reflective “going down south again” theme, with Joe and John Lee in complete accord. Please Don’t Go is a superlative version of Joe’s theme song, with Sonny Boy playing tremendous harp. This was issued back-to-back with the equally brilliant Break ‘Em On Down, a tough reworking of Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down” but with a gambling theme. Highway 49 revived the 1935 classic while Someday Baby covered the 1935 sleepy John Estes recording, with Williamson echoing Hammie Nixon’s harmonica style.