The more one listens to his music the more deeply one is drawn into his unique vision. The dark fluid voice and directly powerful lyrical imagery build with studied intensity. The guitar accompaniments which often stay within one chord through a whole song are like nothing else in blues though they share characteristics with the playing of John Lee Hooker and the Malian Ali Farka Toure. He played music derived from the field holler tradition and by extension is closely tied to African roots.
His songs were usually improvised unrhymed and in no particular metric pattern and his guitar tended to function as a rough second voice. Thus he was hailed as the embodiment of a mythic proto-blues that died before the age of recording. In fact far from being a primitive Williams had learned much of his craft from mainstream records. However in his late 20s he abandoned the standard forms for his own idiosyncratic flights.
He hewed closely to the old holler tradition but not because he was unschooled in contemporary blues styles. A final monologue includes his own story of the circumstances that led to his incarceration. Half the tracks are previously unreleased and they are full of unexpected pleasures. If you have never heard this music there is no way to describe it.
Williams was a one-of-a-kind genius who bred no imitators. These CDs are his legacy and they are among the masterpieces of American music. Robert Pete Williams who died in at the age of 66 never garnered much of a following primarily because his unorthodox and improvised guitar playing was unappreciated except by blues aficionados open to idiosyncratic stylings. Although Robert Pete Williams died in at the age of 66 he arguably remains the most avant-garde blues performer ever recorded.
No punk rock band has ever matched the jagged acerbic fury of the riffs Williams played 35 years ago. No rapper has approached his ability to evoke the torment of life in prison or bend language to cast an eerie spell over a chance encounter with a seductive woman. Williams could improvise precise topical blues numbers with remarkable spontaneity. He had never been recorded when he was discovered in Angola penitentiary in Louisiana convicted of murder. Like the country blues titan Leadbelly Williams even sang his way to freedom.
Yet he was no more than a moderate success on the folk-revival circuit in the s and the very density and originality of his blues must have been part of the reason. His decision to take up the slide guitar was also ill-advised. Today he is a shadowy memory unknown outside blues circles. Blues revivals come and go and the establishment of the House of the Blues chain of nightclubs is one sign the audience for the style is healthy.
In particular each of the field recordings made by the folklorist Dr. Harry Oster while Williams was still an inmate is gripping testimony. The first shock is the peculiar form of these blues. Williams repeats the first line at the beginning of each verse but boldly disregards the rest of routine blues structure. Williams grew up just north of Baton Rouge and like many Delta blues musicians he favors long spidery phrases spiked with hard beats.
And like those of fellow eccentrics Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker his guitar accents twine around the particular cadences of his voice.
While his singing could have a furry tone at times here it cuts like a rusty razor as he describes the turmoil of wandering from town to town homeless and alone. Though structured with care the performance conveys anxiety bordering on emotional chaos. Most of the unreleased songs are Christian supplications at once calmly reverent and riddled with images of death.
Williams played more conventional blues arrangements until he was 28 when he decided to alter his style. A melancholy introverted man Williams had difficulty thinking of himself as a professional entertainer. By all accounts when the blues feeling descended upon him he could unearth tragedy and mystery in any subject in one famous example his horror at how old his face had become in the mirror. At other times he could scarcely force himself to play on stage or off. Williams made a good number of albums after he was paroled but few of them are as harrowing as the prison sessions.
He obsessively reflected on his years in jail a period he considered an unjustly harsh extension of his hard-bitten existence. It can only add to the chills he has provoked for decades. You must be logged in to post a review. Drinking Hanging Out In Love. Introspection Late Night Partying.
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