[13 June 2002]
“It’s all folk music to me. I never heard no cows singin.’”
—Attributed to Sonny Boy Williamson
Every once in awhile, in the oceans of re-issues and re-releases of “classic” music oversaturating the market, inundating and confusing the consumer, a few genuinely good ones come in on the surge. Anyone with a lick of musical sense will want to hear this long set by Sonny Boy Williamson, and once they do, they will likely seek out more music by him and soon swell the legions of Sonny Boy’s fans.
He was one of the most innovative, clever, and talented blues harpists ever recorded, maybe ever period. That alone would have been enough to secure him a place in anyone’s personal blues hall of fame, but he also sang as he played, and you wonder when it was he ever stopped to take a breath of air. Adding to his skilled performance level, he usually performed highly original songs he had fashioned himself, occasionally self-deprecating rather than blues bluff but all with vivid story elements selected by a master story teller.
The Real Folk Blues series at the time of first release in the middle sixties was met with a cooler than usual reception, viewed as a brazen if not cynical marketing ploy aimed at the middle-class, college-aged, folk festival going, finger-snappy blues digging, baby beatnik, deep pockets in their faded levis market by the very market that had been targeted. There was a slight feeling of embarrassment, suspecting that we were being pandered to. Then some ineffable visceral reaction in the gut passed unspoken from person to person like a flu, a viler convulsion erupted since we harbored collective but unmentioned dark suspicions this product was a blatant raking in of profits squeezed from musical geniuses paid as work-for-hire. We imagined that a quart of whiskey and a few folded twenties counted out and slapped down on the counter for the session players to pick up would be all any of these musicians would ever see from this, no matter whose name was given writer’s credits.
What we might have been thinking and feeling probably didn’t bother Chess Records at all. Nor would it have effected Mr. Williamson too much, as he had died in 1965 just slightly prior to the release of the first of these records. Just as he was on the cusp of becoming even more famous, but assuredly never to become rich and famous. But that was then, and this is now. Now we’re the middle-aged, college-educated, finger-snappy blues digging et ceteras and this is a value-loaded budget-priced series re-released maybe with us in mind once again. So much time has elapsed, all there is left to talk about is the music, which seems even more splendid now than it did originally, if that’s possible. And so it should rightly be listened to.
On these 24 selections, which were originally released as two separate LP’s, Williamson is surrounded in Chess studio sessions by some of the greatest sidemen of an era, and there is no other music like it. Drummers who tastefully ride just behind the beat, bass players like Willie Dixon who bounce around that backbeat and wriggle more rhythm around and out; Robert Lockwood, Luther Tucker, Matt Murphy, or Buddy Guy sparkling on guitars without overdoing a single note. The usual economic four-piece group expanded to include Otis Spann or Lafayette Leake chiming their keyboards, and funky R&B saxophones. Dropping into each tune means a complex lead-in that is never once the same. Williamson’s singing is mellow, rich with vibrato, and sweetly rough, and his playing is out of this world.
This is probably not the same sort of music that was broadcast in 1941 on the old King Biscuit Flour Time. When the hottest part of the day arrived and the whistle blew to allow people to leave their work and head home to eat. As they joined together around the family table, for fifteen minutes they could listen to Sonny Boy Williamson live on the air, blowing his horn, singing, and talking. He was famous within broadcast range, his style of playing went out to influence people in the audience; and his image even went on a sack of cornmeal. Moving around in the South could be difficult, and legends of his incarcerations abound. One time, he got in a little trouble for public intoxication and he talked the sheriff into letting him go on with his scheduled radio appearance on King Biscuit; he played that show in leg shackles. Another time, he and fellow blues traveler Robert Lockwood were picked up for vagrancy and locked in a cell. A windstorm hit, blowing down the building, allowing them to go free.
There are some great blues here, especially with Williamson at the forefront with his masterful broad range of technique, phrasing, and timing. His greatest R&B hit from 1955 “Don’t Start Me To Talking” wasn’t included as the selections are drawn from Williamson’s later years playing (1960-1964). “Help Me” has a spooky-sounding organ (by either Lafayette Leake or Billy Emerson); “Nine Below Zero” is essential Chicago blues, really being tossed out into the cold. “Trying to Get Back on My Feet Again” is the slinkiest R&B. Tenor and baritone sax are moaning blues notes with muted guitar notes plucked out in between that echo the exact same lines the saxes are playing.
Winding the clock back is “The Hunt”. This is a novelty tune complete with lively piano, like a vaudeville routine about going coon hunting, down there by Big Black where there are some of the biggest coons ever seen. The dogs are turned loose and begin circling, while Lockwood’s guitar bays like hounds. The image of Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson standing around the microphone, yelping, barking, yipping, and growling, once imagined is never to be forgotten. The hunt continues all the way out of sight down into the river. But there’s something about the way the song ends with the coon killing the dog that tells me this might be one of those “coded” songs I’ve heard so much about.