Big Joe Williams
Big Joe Williams was the most obstinate person to hold a guitar and walk the world. At the same time, he was a fantastic blues artist, a masterful composer with a commanding voice, and a very original guitarist. Even though he had a well-earned reputation as a fighter, as is recounted in Michael Bloomfield’s odd booklet Me and Big Joe, the musicians who knew him best treated him with respect due to an older statesman. Still, they may have yet to want to perform with him since, like other veteran Delta musicians, he insisted on everyone adhering to his standards.
As related by his protégé David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Williams used to “wander everywhere” from New Orleans to Chicago, performing in jukes, shop porches, streets, and alleyways. For five decades, he worked with several record labels, including Vocalion, OKeh, Paramount, Bluebird, Prestige, and Delmark. Charlie Musselwhite claims that he and Big Joe were responsible for beginning the ’60s blues renaissance in Chicago.
On October 16, 1903, Joe Lee “Big Joe” Williams was born on the edge of the Noxubee Swamp, around ten miles west of Crawford (or, according to some documents, 1899). Williams’s ancestor, Bert Logan, and his uncles, Bert and Russ Logan were also blues musicians. He started it by making a guitar with a single string and subsequently added three more to a regular guitar to make a nine-string instrument. When Joe was only a teenager, he ran away from home. He earned a career as a musician, performing for the workers at the railway, turpentine, levee, and forestry camps and touring with minstrel troupes and medical shows. The teenage bluesmen Honeyboy Edwards and Muddy Waters were two of the many who benefited from Charley Patton’s teaching in the Mississippi Delta, and he sometimes brought them on the road with him. He settled in Chicago after becoming integral to the thriving St. Louis blues scene in the 1930s, but he never stopped touring.
Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and Van Morrison (with the band Them) have all recorded Williams’ hallmark song, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which he first released in 1935. (who played harmonica on a Big Joe session in 1962). Like the classic work ballad “Another Man Done Gone,” Joe occasionally credited the composition of this song to his wife, blues artist Bessie Mae Smith. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, a harmonica great, appeared on several of Williams’ the 1930s and ’40s recordings for the Bluebird and Columbia labels. Many traditional bluesmen were left behind as the trends in African American music switched to electric blues and rhythm and blues following World War II. Still, the tireless Williams continued to record singles for labels like a trumpet (located in Jackson, Mississippi), Bullet, and Vee-Jay.
Big Joe switched gears in the late ’50s and became a “folk blues” performer. He was a frequent performer in American and European coffeehouses, nightclubs, and festivals. He also recorded extensively for labels catering to white music fans and collectors (Delmark, Arhoolie, Testament, Bluesville, Folkways, and others). Guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s autobiography Me and Big Joe captures Big Joe’s famous travels and cantankerous demeanor. He is especially well-known in Chicago, where he resided in the basement of the Jazz Record Mart. Williams was very pleased with his achievements as a talent scout as well as with his own musical output. Numerous musicians, such as Port Gibson native J. D. Short and Chicago native John Wesley “Mr. Shortstuff” Macon, were discovered and recorded with his assistance, thanks to his extensive travels across Mississippi, St. Louis, and Chicago. Williams passed away in Macon, Georgia, on December 17, 1982, and was laid to rest in Oktibbeha County, some six miles west of Crawford. In 1992, he was recognized for contributing to the blues community and inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Here is a little bit of Big Joe Williams –