Jimmy Lee Williams - Hoot Your Belly
Written by John MillerJimmy Lee Williams - Hoot Your Belly, Fat Possum Records, FP1009-2
I have my friend Phil Thorne to thank for bringing this CD to my attention and for loaning it to me at the EBA Blues Week this past August. I was very favorably impressed by the several cuts I listened to then, and resolved to pick up the CD when I returned to the States. I finally bought it about a week ago and really have not felt like listening to anything else since then.
Jimmy Lee Williams is (or perhaps was, the CD gives no indication as to whether he is still living) a farmer, residing in Porlan, Georgia, who was recorded by the blues researcher George Mitchell in 1977 and 1982. On these recordings, Jimmy Lee, who was born in 1925, accompanies himself on solo electric guitar. His music shows a bewildering variety of influences; you really can not peg him as falling into a particular sub-genre of blues based on his age, region, instrumental/vocal approach, or choice of material. Rather, as you listen to him (particularly with repeated listening) you settle back into the sound of his strong vocals and solidly rhythmic accompaniments, whatever the character of the individual songs may be.
The opening numbers on the CD are especially distinctive, and are the most individualistic-sounding portion of the program. "What Makes Grandpa Love My Grandma So" is a striking slide tune in Vastapol that contrasts unaccompanied verse phrases with the re-entry of the guitar and a wordless voice playing a kind of signature lick response line. It bears no resemblance to any of the slidework of such earlier Georgia musicians as Barbecue Bob, Charlie Lincoln, or Fred McMullen that I have heard. The title cut, "Hoot Your Belly" [huh?], is a haunting, highly rhythmic song played in G, standard tuning, that I suspect is of Jimmy Lee's invention. It has more of a play-party feel than a blues feel, actually. "See Here Woman" is another bright slide number in Vastapol. "Have You Ever Seen Peaches" is a show-stopper in Vastapol. It opens with an Old-Time blues sort of enigmatic verse:
Have you ever seen peaches grow on a sweet potato vine? (2)
Well, wake up woman, get your legs off of mine
This song has a great, churning, train-like rhythm, and the way Jimmy Lee hums along with and against his slide solos is sensational. I would rate this song and performance right up there with such Vastapol classics as Bukka White's "Panama Limited" and Robert Wilkins's "That's No Way To Get Along". It is that good. On "Jimmy Lee's Frolic", an instrumental in Vastapol with a wordless vocal, Jimmy Lee pulls off the Sam Collins stunt of playing an out of tune guitar in tune with his slide.
Listening to the first five numbers in this program, I get the feeling that what Jimmy Lee is going for in his music dwells in the realm of pure sound. He illustrates repeatedly how unnecessary metric consistency is for the solo player as long as the pulse and sense of phrasing are forcefully expressed. He loves the sound of the VI note of the scale and on these tunes, he over and over again emphasizes it in his melodies, often singing it against his slide playing the III note of the scale. Moreover, he appears to be particularly fond of wordless vocals, humming or chanting syllables, "huh, huh, huh" along with his accompaniment in a way that sounds as old as music itself. The buzzy headtone he occasionally employs brings to mind that of Ishmon Bracey, though he lacks Bracey's scary intensity; Jimmy Lee's sound is prettier. He also favors the major pentatonic scale, I-II-III-V-VI, over the blues pentatonic scale, I-flat III-IV-V-flat VII. Maybe it is just my own affinity for that sound, but I find the over-all effect powerful and addictive.
The remainder of the program, while still very strong, is perhaps not quite as distinctive as the first five cuts. "Rock On Away From Here" is a shuffle in E, standard tuning, that feels like it is going to be a one-chorder, but then catches you off-guard by going to the IV chord intermittently. The Howling Wolf song, "When You Hear Me Howling" is done with a sort of Bo Diddley-ish groove and searing vocal. "Pretty Baby" is another shuffle in E; I'm trying to figure out why solo shuffles are so much more interesting than ensemble ones. "Little Boy Blue" is a one-chorder in E that bears some resemblance, lyrically, to the old folk song, "Old Dan Tucker". "Step It Up And Go" really comes out of left field, and it is amazing, given that nothing on the program up to this point has sounded anything like this, how closely Jimmy Lee's rendition favors those of other East Coast musicians of his generation like John Jackson, John Dee Holman, and John Cephas. "I Got To Know", "Whiskey Headed Woman", and "You Got My Money" are a trio of powerful E standard tunes that close out the CD.
I recommend this CD very strongly. The singing and playing throughout are outstanding, and the first portion of the program is an unique musical statement. I have heard very little in the way of solo country blues from the era when these sessions were done that I like as well as the music of Jimmy Lee Williams.
PROGRAM: What Make Grandpa Love My Grandma So; Hoot Your Belly; See Here Woman; Have You Ever Seen Peaches; Jimmy Lee's Frolic; Rock On Away From Here; When You Hear Me Howling; Pretty Baby; Little Boy Blue; Step It Up And Go; I Got To Know; Whiskey Headed Woman; You Got My Money