Big Joe Williams


Joseph Lee "Big Joe" Williams (October 16, 1903 – December 17, 1982)[2] was an American Delta blues guitarist, singer and songwriter,[1] notable for the distinctive sound of his nine-string guitar. Performing over four decades, he recorded the songs "Baby Please Don't Go", "Crawlin' King Snake" and "Peach Orchard Mama", among many others, for various record labels, including Bluebird, Delmark, Okeh, Prestige and Vocalion.[3] He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame on October 4, 1992.

Born in Oktibbeha County,[5] a few miles west of Crawford, Mississippi,[6] Williams as a youth began wandering across the United States busking and playing in stores, bars, alleys and work camps.[7] In the early 1920s he worked in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue. He recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930 for Okeh Records.[4]

In 1934, he was in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met the record producer Lester Melrose, who signed him to Bluebird Records in 1935.[8] He stayed with Bluebird for ten years, recording such blues hits as "Baby, Please Don't Go" (1935) and "Crawlin' King Snake" (1941), both of which were later covered by many other musicians. He also recorded with other blues singers, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Peetie Wheatstraw.[4] Around this time he was reportedly married to St. Louis blues singer Bessie Mae Smith,[9] who he sometimes credited with writing “Baby Please Don’t Go”. [10]

During the early 1930s, Williams was accompanied on his travels through the Mississippi Delta by a young Muddy Waters. Williams recounted to Blewett Thomas, "I picked Muddy up in Rolling Fork when he was about 15. He went all 'round the Delta playin' harmonica behind me. But I had to put him down after awhile. All these women were comin' up to me and sayin', 'Oh. your young son is so nice!' See, I had to put Muddy down because he was takin' away my women."

Williams remained a noted blues artist in the 1950s and 1960s, when his guitar style and vocals became popular with folk blues fans. He recorded for Trumpet, Delmark, Prestige, Vocalion and other labels. He became a regular on the concert and coffeehouse circuits, touring Europe and Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s and performing at major U.S. music festivals.[4]

Williams also had an influence on a young Bob Dylan during the early Sixties. According to Lenni Brenner ("How Dylan Found His Voice: Big Joe Williams, the Lower East Side, Peyote and the Forging of Dylan's Art), Williams encouraged Dylan to move away from singing traditional songs and write his own music. Williams later said, "Bob wrote me thanking me for the advice I had given him about music. What he earned, what he done, he got it honest. They ask me, 'Is he real?' and I tell them that they should let him live his own life." Williams and Dylan also recorded several duets in 1962 for Victoria Spivey's label, Spivey Records.

Williams died December 17, 1982, in Macon, Mississippi.[2][4] He was buried in a private cemetery outside Crawford, near the Lowndes County line. His headstone was primarily paid for by friends and partially funded by a collection taken up among musicians at Clifford Antone's nightclub in Austin, Texas, organized by the music writer Dan Forte, and erected through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on October 9, 1994. The harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, a one-time touring companion, delivered the eulogy at the unveiling. Williams's epitaph, composed by Forte, proclaims him "King of the 9 String Guitar."