"From a Prison Cell to the Avant-Garde
The New York Times, Sunday, August 7, 1994
By MILO MILES
Although Robert Pete Williams died in 1980 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 1960s, 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. The release of Williams's prison recordings in 1959 caused a sensation with an earlier generation of fans. By rights, equal excitement should greet the recent reissue of most of his earliest sides along with more than a dozen unreleased tunes on `I'm as Blue as a Man Can Be' (Arhoolie CD 394) and `When a Man Takes the Blues' (Arhoolie CD 395).
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. But too many of today's younger performers walk through the blues with a vocabulary imited to an ever-shrinking series of overused themes and guitar licks. Compared with such performances, Williams's blues comes as a draught of straight whisky after sips of warm soda. 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. `This Wild Old Life' from `I'm Blue as a Man Can Be' shows Williams at his most stubbornly independent.
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. `I'm a poor boy here,' he sings. `Ain't got no place to go/ I've been riding around here a little while now/ In a little old one-horse town/ I don't know no one here, baby/ No one but myself.' The song consists almost entirely of a leaping riff that Williams expands, contracts and tweaks with rhythmic variations. Though structured with care, the performance conveys anxiety bordering on emotional chaos.
In `Please Lord, Help Me on My Way,' the same free-flowing structure, based on a more soothing guitar figure, suggests dignified contemplation: `Lord, when I'm in my cloak of gray/ For myself I don't want no worry.' Williams was as often prayerful as he was panicked. Most of the unreleased songs are Christian supplications, at once calmly reverent and riddled with images of death.
As the guitarist Henry Kaiser points out in his perceptive notes to `I'm as Blue as a Man Can Be,' the sparse chords and webs of rhythm in Williams's playing suggests the work of modern West African guitarists like Ali Farka Toure. Indeed, the tune `When a Man Takes the Blues' could be an English-language excerpt from one of Mr. Toure's albums. And the jangly `Hot Springs Blues,' among others, shows how much Williams inspired oddball white blues rockers like Captain Beefheart.
It is impossible to know why Williams's blues sound so African, but they do not support the old notion, now discredited, that so-called primitive blues were rough and shapeless and evolved into more regular, melodic forms. Williams played more conventional blues arrangements until he was 28, when he decided to alter his style. In 1965, he gave a widely quoted explanation, saying that `the sound of the atmosphere' changed his playing. `It could be from the airplanes or the moaning of automobiles,' he said, but anyway, the wind blew a different music to him that transformed his blues."
Robet Pete Williams (1966)
Robet Pete Williams (1970)
Scrap Iron Blues (1971)
Old Girl At My Door (1971)
Better Listen To Me (Parts 1 and 2)