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Author Topic: Robert Pete Williams  (Read 4716 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Robert Pete Williams
« on: July 19, 2003, 01:09:01 AM »
Hi all,
I was recently sent a new recording on Arhoolie called "Angola Spirituals", recorded by the folklorist Dr. Harry Oster at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana in 1959.  It is a tremendous disc, and I am going to give it a rave review, but what I'm wondering about is the one musician featured most prominently on it, Robert Pete Williams, and whether you all had listened to him and what you thought of him.
The word unique is over-used when applied to musicians or artists, but in Robert Pete Williams's case, it really applies.  So much of what he played and sang didn't sound like anybody else.  Of course, the state of Louisiana  was horribly under-documented with regard to Country Blues in the '20s-'50s, so it is possible that he is a representative of some sub-regional style of which no other practitioners were recorded, but I doubt it.  I think he was just wired differently.  He reminds me of the Jazz musician Ornette Coleman (from Ft. Worth, TX, originally) who is simultaneously more country and more far-out than a lot of his sophisticated contemporaries.  Robert Pete did some things that were more or less "normal" sounding, but then a whole lot of stuff which seemed to inhabit a different musical universe.
Incidentally, I saw him once at a festival, and remember thinking that he was experiencing reality in a drastically different way than I was.  I remember hearing that he was supposed to have "second sight", and knew the moment when someone close to him passed away who was far fom him at the time. I do not think that the footage of him on one of the Vestapol videos captures anything like his best work.
I guess this post is not so much a statement as a query:  Have any of you listened to Robert Pete?  What did you think?  I know some people think he was just screwed up or weird, or didn't know what he was doing.  I would be interested to hear your thoughts on his music.
All Best,
John          

Offline lindy

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #1 on: July 19, 2003, 08:20:50 AM »
John,

When I think of Robert Pete, I remember one of the best jobs I ever had, as a DJ who had free rein to play whatever kind of music I wanted as long as it wasn't rock and roll.  The station had a lot of international music--before the name "world music" came into vogue--along with classical records and folk, and I often brought in a stack of blues and African records.  Listeners used to make suggestions for set lists all the time, and one suggested that I put Robert Pete back-to-back with a group that I was hot on back then, the Mandingo Griot Society.  To my ears there were a lot of similarities between what Williams did on the guitar and what kora players do--long stretches of an intricate, repetitive groove with lots of minor variations thrown in.  Words are failing me here, you might say the same thing with a lot of the players we love on this list, but I thought the sound that Robert Pete produced was much closer to his African roots than others.  I agree, the Vestapol video clips don't do him real justice, but I think if you watch them and then watch the Vestapol video of African Solo Fingerstyle Guitar Music, there's a stylistic thing going on that I think goes back to the kora and other traditional stringed instruments in Africa.  I would venture a guess that he grew up in a place where he heard his elders play some very old music from pre-slavery origins.

Lindy

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #2 on: July 19, 2003, 11:20:12 PM »
Thanks for the insights on Robert Pete Williams, Lindy, I don't think I had considered the African-ness of his sound.  In thinking about it, though, I once saw a Malian singer/guitarist named Boubacar Traoure in concert, and he had two ways of singing:  one was very high and sweet, but the other was in a bright harsh tone, more like chanting than melodic singing.  This second voice, which I took to have an Islamic influence, almost like a call to prayer, was very much like Robert Pete Williams' singing.  I wonder if Harry Oster had an opportunity to record any other musicians in the part of Louisiana from which Robert Pete hailed.  It would be interesting to know if there was anyone else who sounded remotely like him.
John

Offline Slack

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #3 on: July 20, 2003, 04:56:57 PM »
Hi John,

Except for Grossman's videos, I'm unfamiliar with Robert Pete Williams (he's on "Masters of the Country Blues" Vol. 1 and 3).  I don't find "Angola Spirituals" on the Arhoolie website - maybe it is still too new for the website, I'll give them a call.  I see plenty of other Robert Pete CD's on arhoolie though, do you have any another RPW CD recommendations?

Thanks, one week to go!

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #4 on: July 20, 2003, 10:25:16 PM »
Hi John,
I realized I gave the wrong title to the CD I was sent to review--it is actually called "Angola Prison Spirituals", and is part of Arhoolie's mid-price series.  It is a tremendous CD.  I wrote the review this afternoon.  As far as other Robert Pete recordings go, I do not have any of the other ones on Arhoolie, all of which I believe originally were released on Dr. Harry Oster's Folklyric label.  Incidentally, I think Harry Oster was a great folklorist.  He also did tremendous recordings of Snooks Eaglin and Smoky Babe.  The local Tower Records store has one of the Arhoolie releases of Robert Pete Williams and I think I will get it tomorrow.  
The one Robert Pete Williams album I do have is on Original Jazz Classics (formerly Prestige Bluesville), and is called "Free Again".  It is strong and has a lot of variety.  One of the interesting sidelights of Williams' unique approach and sound is that he is one of the most difficult country blues musicians I have heard to peg in terms of tuning or chord position that he plays songs in.  I feel like I am getting a better understanding of his sound, though.  Today I think I figured out a fluky tuning that he used to play in low C.  Maybe I'll include a piece by him in one of the classes at P.T.  As you say, it is just a week away.  I am sure looking forward to it.
All Best,
John    

Offline Slack

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #5 on: July 21, 2003, 10:13:17 AM »
Hi John,

Looks like "Angolan Prison Spirituals" will not be on the street until August 12th - I think I'll listen to some sample cuts from his other available CD's and order one in the meantime.

Glad you have found a challenging blues musician to figure out!  ;)   Very cool if he is using his own fluky tunings, looking forward to it!

cheers,

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #6 on: July 22, 2003, 10:50:36 AM »
Hi John,
You are right--it is cool to have something tough to figure out, and with Robert Pete I definitely have my work cut out for me.  We'll see if I have anything by P.T.
John

Offline Slack

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2003, 09:00:56 PM »
Except for Grossman's videos, I'm unfamiliar with Robert Pete Williams (he's on "Masters of the Country Blues" Vol. 1 and 3).  

Oops, I better qualify that statement... Except for Grossman's videos AND "You Didn't Mean Me No Good" ...which I play on a regular basis.. ha! (My brain is already starting to malfunction in anticipation of PT week.)

Gettin' jazzed, looking froward to next week!


M.Vidrine

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #8 on: April 23, 2004, 08:34:26 AM »
Wow, I just got a promo copy of the new Robert Pete Williams on Arhoolie. I can't stop listening to track 2 - Cane Cut Man. I have never blues guitar played this way! The liner notes compare the riff to the Malian griots style of playing. I'm not really sure what Malian griots is (I do know it's African)? For some reason my brain keeps bringing me back to the first episode of Scorcese's "The Blues" where Cory Harris visits & plays with other African musicians. The track is amazing and is a MUST listen to!! I'm recording the CD to my computer now & will put some Real Audio samples up on the Venerable site in a few minutes. When they're up you can here them here - http://www.venerablemusic.com/catalog/TitleDetails.asp?TitleID=7373

If anyone wants to shed some light on the Malian griots thing or make any reccomendations, I'm all ears.

Just wanted to share!

Now, back to work - Malcolm

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #9 on: April 23, 2004, 09:57:58 AM »
Hi Malcolm,
I agree with you, "Cane Cut Man" is pretty amazing, as is most of the stuff on that new Robert Pete Williams Arhoolie set.? I think a lot of the comparisons of Robert Pete's music with African music of different types speak to the feel he evokes and his singing, which does have a kind of Islamic sound like some of the Malian guitarplayer/singers, like Boubacar Traoure.? As far as structural similarities go between Robert Pete's music and African musics, I am less sure.? Since you like "Cane Cut Man" so much, you may want to seek out Robert Pete's CD "Free Again", on Original Jazz Classics, available from www.fantasyjazz.com, or Angola Prison Spirituals, on Arhoolie, where he plays a number of cuts.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: April 10, 2005, 10:28:57 PM by Johnm »

Offline lindy

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #10 on: April 23, 2004, 12:17:34 PM »
Wow, I just got a promo copy of the new Robert Pete Williams on Arhoolie. I can't stop listening to track 2 - Cane Cut Man. I have never blues guitar played this way! The liner notes compare the riff to the Malian griots style of playing. I'm not really sure what Malian griots is (I do know it's African)? For some reason my brain keeps bringing me back to the first episode of Scorcese's "The Blues" where Cory Harris visits & plays with other African musicians. The track is amazing and is a MUST listen to!! I'm recording the CD to my computer now & will put some Real Audio samples up on the Venerable site in a few minutes. When they're up you can here them here - http://www.venerablemusic.com/catalog/TitleDetails.asp?TitleID=7373

If anyone wants to shed some light on the Malian griots thing or make any reccomendations, I'm all ears.

Just wanted to share!

Now, back to work - Malcolm

Malcolm:

Griots are historians.  Their main task in life has always been to learn the histories/genealogies of villages and families from elder griots and to pass them down to younger griots before becoming parts of the history themselves.  In the majority of cases, a griot is born into a griot family; if no son is born into a family, then it's OK to adopt an outsider, just as long as the chain isn't broken.  The histories are not written, but sung.  Until recently, villagers have always relied on griots to provide information on their ancestors.  In Mali, a griot's main accompanying instrument is a kora, and if you've never seen one, I'll let you do a Net search rather than try to explain it with words. 

The similarity that I hear between Robert Pete William's music and that of a griot (and this is in only certain RPW tunes, certainly not even a majority of them) is the technique of playing a phrase and ending it with a big, fat, heavy single bass note.  The phrase can be 4 bars or it can be 20, it depends on what the singer wants to state (or the point the griot wants to make) before hitting that resolution.

There are two CDs I can recommend if you want to hear what I'm trying to say: "In Griot Time--String Music from Mali," on the Stern's Africa label (STCD 1089); and "Bajourou--Big String Theory," on the Green Linnett/Xenophile label, GLCD 4008.  The last two times I heard Corey Harris perform solo he played a Bajourou song that is on that CD; I'm told that if you are a guitar player in Mali and you want to "jam" with other guitar players, you must learn that song.

And if you like that stuff, then there's a guy named D'Gary from Madgascar; along with Boubacar Traore from Mali, well, I think they stand apart from others the same way that Robert Pete does in country blues.

Lindy

Offline waxwing

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #11 on: April 23, 2004, 01:13:53 PM »
For some interesting reading on the griot, check out Yonder Come the Blues. The first of three articles, Savannah Syncopators, is by the great Paul Oliver and details his trip to Africa in the '60s in search of musical roots of Blues. The griot were from an inland savannah area that had no large trees for drum making and used gourds and such as resonators for various stringed instruments. As John M. stated, they were from an Islamic society and their music was greatly influence by that culture. The griot were a slave caste in this society and mostly owned either by noblemen or by guilds of craftsmen, for whom they would play to ease the drudgery of labor. The griot served as news and gossip mongers, and tellers of stories of glorification, much as the medival ballad singers did. It was interesting listening to that conversation between Corey Harris and the Malian nobleman turned musician (who's name escapes me - senior moment). Corey was mentioning how his ancestors could have been griot, then, later in the conversation, the Malian states that he is not a griot, and for emphasis, that he was not a slave. No doubt, this was to emphasize the boldness of his break with tradition, a nobleman taking on the trade of a slave against his families wishes, but it immediately occured to me that there was also the implication that his ancestors could have sold Corey's ancestors to the slave traders heading to the coast. I wonder if Corey understood that in the moment? Being from a well educated Islamic culture, the savannah slaves were highly prized in the US. Slavery is such a complex issue. I noticed Edward P. Jones recieved the Pulitzer Prize this year for The Known World, an historical novel about a freed black man in Texas who became a slave owner himself, a fact that had horrified Jones, an African American, since he had learned of it in college. It is so sad to me that slavery in America has precipitated what seems to be an endless cycle of racism and divisiveness, in this country, that is so easily played upon by our political leaders. I always feel it is important to raise these parallel issues, yet not in a pedantic way, when performing this music.
Sorry if I got a little OT there. The other two articles in Yonder Comes the Blues are also quite interesting to anyone interested in the history of this music.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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CD on YT

Offline outfidel

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #12 on: June 25, 2004, 08:56:48 AM »
heads up on a new collection, courtesy of the good folks at Roots & Rhythm:

ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS
Long Ol' Way From Home

Fuel 2000 6139 $16.98
15 tracks, 70 mins, highly recommended
Fabulous collection of previously unissued recordings cut live at the University
Of Chicago in 1965. Robert Pete is in great form performing his stream of conscious
lyrics and playing his beautifully idiosyncratic guitar style. Even when he performs
traditional blues or songs he has recorded before - they come out completely
different every time so it's impossible to get bored. Perhaps not quite as intense
as some of his recordings for Harry Oster which were recorded when he was in
jail on a murder charge or just after his initial release they are nevertheless
powerful and exciting performances by one of true giants of country blues. Recording
quality is excellent and there are informative notes by Bill Dahl. (FS)
Support musicians in need - join the Music Maker Relief Foundation

Offline NotRevGDavis

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #13 on: July 03, 2005, 02:19:13 PM »
I find the disonance in some of his songs very interesting, he uses it unlike any other artist I have ever heard.
And the background noise. I can't figure out if it is intentional or not; in one tune a roster crows at the absolute perfect moment, other times there is the sound of farm animals in the background and at one point a tractor trailer rig going by.
Got the name, still workin' on the licks!

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #14 on: July 03, 2005, 11:57:43 PM »
Hi Gary,
I know what you mean about Robert Pete Williams's use of dissonance; it is distinctive.? And I guess you could say many of his recordings really were "field recordings".? On the Fat Possum CD, there is that insistent rooster, and on "Robert Pete Williams Vol. 1" on Arhoolie you can hear birds twittering on "Pardon Denied Again".? It's all a far cry from the present day studio recordings to which we have become accustomed.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: July 04, 2005, 11:02:05 AM by Johnm »

Offline CF

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Re: Robert Pete Williams
« Reply #15 on: August 30, 2008, 09:42:18 AM »
There's a kid on youtube claiming he has one of Robert's guitars. Apparently his dad got it from a friend.



This sound legit to anyone who might know?
Stand By If You Wanna Hear It Again . . .

 


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