With this re-issue of a 1971 recording there are now six CDs by the Louisiana blues man currently available. For someone who never managed to make a living out of music this is perhaps surprising. None of Williams’ output would have been heard beyond the small rural communities of Zachary or Rosedale if it had not been for a series of events that tell us much about the blues world and even more about the role of the white enthusiasts who discovered this idiosyncratic performer.
Though we associate the folk and blues revivals with the 1960s, the movement has its origins much earlier. The interest in an “authentic” folk as opposed to “pop” music has a long history—the work of Cecil Sharp in the early twentieth century springs to mind. Of greater relevance to the American scene was the Communist Party’s championing of singers such as Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and, particularly, Leadbelly. This interest was greatest in the 1940s but with McCarthyism this espousal lost its overt political tag—something it was to regain in the early sixties. However, the 1950s did see an increasing number of field recordings and a general hunting down of rural artists who conformed to the non-commercial requirements of the white idealists.
Thus, while the creative boom of R&B went largely ignored, singers and players in more rustic styles were re-discovered or, just as regularly, freshly uncovered. Robert Pete Williams was one such and his circumstances were the archivists’ dream. Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly) is not listened to much these days but for a time in the US and the UK he was the epitome of the black folk performer and a cross between a blueprint and the Holy Grail for many of these foragers in the rural South. Leadbelly’s prominence had, among other things, directly led to Skiffle, that odd English hybrid which was as important as Elvis to English kids of the time. Do not forget that The Beatles started out as a skiffle band. In America he was the model for the black troubadour, bearing a wealth of songs that pre-dated the blues itself and his influence was probably just as seminal.
Part of his appeal was, I am afraid to say, his conviction for murder. His first recordings were made in prison and his parole was largely due to special pleading by the enthusiasts. This romanticising of the violence that accompanies poverty and racism dogs white appreciation of black music to this day. The middle-class and academic championing of gangsta rap is a contemporary variant. I do not wish to deny the genuine concern for justice and equality among the researchers. Many of them went on to form an essential part of the Civil Rights movement. Nonetheless there remains something at best naive and at worst unsavoury about the relationship, then and now, between their comfortable lives and their vicarious involvement in the excesses and tribulations of the oppressed.
Anyhow, prison recordings and the search for another Leadbelly were firmly established by the time Robert Williams (Pete was a nickname) entered the notorious Angola Farm on a conviction for murder in 1956. There he was recorded by Harry Oster and Richard Allen, two respected folklorists.Had they found Leadbelly Mark Two? Well, not in terms of repertoire but he was certainly the “real” thing—in that he fitted all the best stereotypes. Illiterate, from a background of immense hardship, a working man and not a professional musician, a murderer (self-defence,of course) and never before put on tape. Not only that but he sang in an eerie, intensely personal style, barely bothering with such new-fangled formulations as AAB structures or conventional 12-bar patterns. Surely this was the raw, primeval—dare one say primitive—original sound of the blues, untouched by commerce and, some would argue, technique.
Records were made. Critics loved them and pressure for Williams’ parole began. He was released into the stewardship of a blues-loving white farmer and finally pardoned in 1964. This allowed him to perform at the influential Newport Folk festival that year and he toured regularly from then until his death. Recordings were infrequent and the completely irreproducible nature of his singing and playing made him a less than commercially successful figure in the country blues revival. He did however remain an absolute marker of authenticity and does so to this day.
So was he the genuine article and more importantly is he any good. The answer is, despite all the myth-making and idealisations, probably yes on both counts. Although having been born in 1914 he can hardly be said to pre-date the blues (unlike Leadbelly). The influence of Blind Lemon Jefferson can be detected more clearly now than perhaps was possible at the time. Nonetheless he did sing in his own style, his playing belongs to no discernible school and his abandonment of conventional meter and poetic structure would give William Carlos Williams a run for his money.
The prison recordings are still the place to find these attributes in their most complete form. This later session only has three completely “free” takes. The rest are much closer to the country blues as we generally understand them. Even so you are not going to mistake Williams for some slicker exponent (and all blues acts appear slick next to him). On “Farm Blues” for example,the lyrics seem to arrive unbidden, unrhymed and unstructured. A realist stream of consciousness is the closest one can get to describing them. The lament on the death of Slim Harpo is just as strange. It is resolutely matter-of-fact yet sung with such anguish that the effect is almost surreal. The guitar playing is powerful but seemingly crude—although other cuts show enough panache to suggest that the dissonances are quite deliberate. Together, guitar and voice manage to cook up a sound that is truly haunting, redolent of bad luck and trouble.No wonder the folklorists thought they had found the mother lode.
On the more orthodox pieces such as “Matchbox Blues”, “Tombstone Blues” or “Railroad Blues” Williams retains enough waywardness to mark him out from the crowd. He also has a nice line in vaguely bawdy lyrics (“Cover Shaker” and “Until My Love Comes Down”). These songs are all, to my ears, more readily enjoyable than the much-celebrated anarchic cuts. As most of Williams’ work was improvised pretty well spontaneously, even the “standards” have that impulsiveness and unpredictability that endeared him to the aficionados. He still startles and intrigues, although it can be a fairly tiring experience after a while.
I would prefer to place Williams in the tradition of African-American improvisation than see him as some sort of throwback to purer musical times. The spirit of Ayler and Shepp is not that far removed in practice if not in theory. No scholar has seen fit to ask what his black neighbours thought about him or his music, which does trouble me.As the wider black record buying audience never knew about him he remains something of a white audience’s version of what the blues is all about. Yet there is no denying that something honestly creative is happening. Ignore the trappings of “Folk Realism”, which in this case annoyingly include roosters crowing and trains passing by, and discover somebody who, by accident or design, managed to give expressive voice to a harsh and tough life.
The search for an untouched, pure “essence” is always doomed to failure.For all its problems (and I can’t help wondering why no-one ever asks about the men Williams or Leadbelly killed, were they not also poor and black?) it does provide a perhaps necessary antidote to the overly commercialised and media-directed world we inhabit. The patronising and the ingenuous tendencies on behalf of the researchers and fans need to be examined rather more carefully than is usually the case.In the end though, they do allow us to hear styles and sounds that otherwise few would have access to.
One final word. At the end of this record Williams sings “Vietnam Blues” in his freest and least intelligible fashion. Is this the blues as vital, proletarian protest—the very thing the early Leftists believed it to be? Or did Williams throw this in to please his Woodstock generation audience? How aware were the black artists of the role they were playing for their white fans? There are some tantalising hints but no actual proof, yet I suspect that Williams, and many others, were not nearly as unself-conscious as many liked to believe. Perhaps that is my own idealisation,who knows? As always, listen and judge for yourself.