Thursday, November 30, 2006:

Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams -- This Wild Old Life
Robert Pete Williams -- I Got the Blues So Bad
Robert Pete Williams -- Thumbing a Ride
Robert Pete Williams -- Matchbox Blues

Supposedly Robert Pete Williams made his first guitar out of a cigar box, killed a man in self-defense, and spent a couple years in Angola before earning recognition as a musician and being pardoned.

Common enough blues tale: poverty, violence, injustice, pardon; unfortunately it's not true. What really happened is that Robert Pete Williams found his guitar in a thrift shop, where he bought it from a clerk curiously eager to get rid of it. He first played it right outside and a passing drunk asked for "Dust My Broom"; Williams, usually an affable and patient fellow, attacked and killed him then a policeman, a bus driver, a beet farmer, a stray horse, a two-day-old newspaper, and a museumful of formerly bored high schoolers. Williams escaped into the swamps, where he sat on mangrove knees playing droning angular blues, luring stupidly curious alligators close enough to club them over the head with an Ebdim7. And while Thoreau was proud of his tough stringy squirrels, Williams was never proud of his alligators; mostly he passed his days wishing he could sell the guitar back, or at least put it down for good and get a job as an accountant.

Williams died in 1980, that much is true, but there never was a fire that did anything more to his guitar than make it cranky. It's out there still, tangled in roots, half-submerged in fetid muck, waiting for something with opposable thumbs to pass by close enough.
[Robert Pete Williams]
[I'm as Blue as a Man Can Be]
[Free Again]
[When a Man Takes the Blues]

All of these are also available at emusic.

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I enjoyed reading this introduction as much as I enjoyed listening to the songs!

Well, that's good to hear. Thanks, Andy.

You can find a great footage on youtube:

Thank you for that. Here's another, with Williams improvising a new tune and parts of an interview cut over it, explaining what happened to put him in prison. I wonder what it's from, if the film is available anywhere--I doubt it's Blues under the skin, as that film has several other characters, none identified by their real name, and Williams gets a lot of time in this clip but doesn't get top billing on that film. Very interesting, in any case.

Thanks for this. I think I have it all on CD, but it hasn't made it to my iPod, so this'll be a nice thing to listen to. I've been a fan of Robert Pete for years. I think he's my favorite blues guitar player. He plays, not reliant on stock blues figures. I think he was as much a "free blues" player as Ornette Coleman was a "free jazz" player. Very radical.

But I don't find his influence anywhere in contemporary music, do you? I still don't think people have absorbed what he was doing, enough to make it part of their own music. But when they do, wow.


The pleasure's mine, Brad.

Right offhand I can't think of anyone who shows a Robert Pete Williams influence, though there might be somebody. "Free blues" is a good description, I think; in listening to it I'm just constantly reminded that the songs aren't going where I expect to but I don't mind at all.

I forget which of the old blues studies this story is from, but do you know the quote where Robert Pete says he's "an air music man"? That he just hears this stuff coming through the air and snatches it out.

I've been playing some stuff that is influenced by him. I would like to learn more about playing LIKE him, but I don't know his tunings. Do you? I read once that he used predominantly minor tunings (that he and Skip James were the only two blues artists to play predominantly in minor tunings).

Would love to know. If you do, could you send it to me at my email, (anyone else can, too.)


Now since I've switched to Blogger Beta, most of the comments are by "anonymous."

That's a neat story, Brad; and no, I hadn't heard it before. Sorry, I don't know what tunings Williams used. Maybe one of the other readers will be able to help you.

(I'm the anonymous of the footage :-)
This sequence is not from Blues under the skin. I guess this one is from the first movie made by the same guy; the Blues under my skin is a sort of docu-drama based on a documentary. I ask myself if I shouldn't find this movie-maker and phone him to know (what, why, get more informations). This guy is french, it helps me :-)

I've discovered Pete Williams and Jandek in the same time, and there's some connections between both of them.

I think the "air music" quote comes from one of Guralnick's books, although I'd have to check to be sure...

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