Jody Williams: Return of a Legend

[23 April 2002]

By Barbara Flaska

Jody Williams. Now, that name might ring a bell, but this is not the same Jody Williams, the lady who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her long campaign to ban landmines (but, really, a few years have slipped by and what person do you most associate with banning landmines?). No, this is Jody Williams, the Chicago guitarslinger who literally came from the same school as his friend Bo Diddley. You’ve heard Williams’ playing, too, if ever you’ve heard Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”. Back then, Williams came up with the major riffs you’ve heard in other songs, some even stranger than that, and over the years those tones became associated with someone else. One particular song became a major hit, you’d know it by name or if you heard it, but Williams despite promises and a trip to court did not get dime one, any credit, much less any thanks. There’s always a lot of philosophizing about music, and how music and musicians build on influences borrowed one from the other. But if you happen to be a musician who relies on the riffs you come up with to help make your own way in the music world, sometimes it hurts to be part of that historical process. The good news is that Jody Williams is back, playing his own style, and one that has remained intact since 1957.

Almost anyone of a certain generation who had more than a passing acquaintance with a blues club will recognize Williams’ signature piece, “Lucky Lou”. A minor key but snappy instrumental, the tune is a collection of miniature studied cacophonies, and one so genuinely evocative it paints a picture of a room when a blues guitarist improvises and eases into the new complex moods of jazz. Structurally, it’s as if all those notes that once sounded like mistakes or slips into an off key, what seemed to be slight musical missteps even after a lifetime of playing, somehow end up working out when all taken and combined as a single piece. In terms of nudging up against and stretching against the invisible membrane that edges some musical boundaries, this piece for its time and now is like a tonal photograph, allowing the listener to imagine how it might have been the first time blues became something else and modernized into jazz.

Lyrically, much of the material on Return of a Legend has to do with the kind of treachery that is fostered by desperate circumstances. The sophisticated urbane jazzy sound of “She Found A Fool And Bumped His Head” lends a humorous elegance to the tale of a well-off hooker (“Smooth as ice, and twice as cold”) who slips some poor fool a Mickey before emptying his wallet.“I never thought life could be cruel like that / People buying love in a cold water flat / A poor working man who’s a little weak in the mind / Oh, heads like that are getting bumped all the time”.

But the real blues are here, too, told in intelligent, sophisticated, urbane lyrics carried by Williams’ rich expressive voice. There’s the tom-tom driven slink of “I’m Coming Back In Again” the story describing the scene found when a lover returns home too early. While not finding his sweetheart exactly in flagrante delecto, he soon realizes the truth, but allows the culprit as graceful an escape as could be possible under such circumstances. After all, he might suspect how he might feel if caught in such straits, as he offers much more than just a shoulder to cry on in “Come Over to My House”. Billy Boy Arnold provides tasteful harp on this tune.

Imagine Williams and Arnold and their friend Bo Diddley all starting out playing music together in Chicago in 1951 as very young men, their first gigs busking on the streets for dough. Working in those surroundings, Arnold hit on using a mason jar to amplify his harp, and you can almost hear the precursor of the sounds shaped by the bullet mic. What is a bit harder to imagine is how Williams plays all the music he does and all in an open E tuning, the same tuning he began learning with.

Since then, the years have rolled on as they are known to do. It’s pretty much true what Chicago bluesman Williams points out, “There aren’t many of us left. I’m an endangered species.” But one of the joys this reviewer takes is hearing young enthusiastic blues fans wax ecstatic over Jody Williams. People who weren’t even born when those 1957 blues records first came out. In giving himself a second turn, Williams is also giving them a chance to hear the blues now as they were played then. So these younger fans who have been mourning they were somehow born too late don’t have to feel like they’ve missed out any longer. While many may have learned about the Chicago blues of the ‘50s just from records and by developing an ear, the good news is they know enough about the genuine article to recognize and appreciate it when they hear it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/williamsjody-return/