Country Blues > Super Electrical Recordings!

Big Joe Williams--Vols. 1 and 2, Document BDCD-6003 and BDCD-6004


PROGRAM:Volume 1:Little Leg Woman; Somebody's Been Borrowin' That Stuff; Providence Help The Poor People; 49 Highway Blues; My Grey Pony; Stepfather Blues; Baby Please Don't Go; Stack O' Dollars; Wild Cow Blues; Worried Man Blues; I Know You Gonna Miss Me; Rootin' Ground Hog; Brother James; I Won't Be In Hard Luck No More; Crawlin' King Snake; I'm Getting Wild About Her; Peach Orchard Mama; Meet Me Around The Corner; Throw A Boogie Woogie; North Wind Blues; Please Don't Go; Highway 49; Someday Baby; Break 'Em On Down
Volume 2:Drop Down Blues; Somebody's Been Worryin'; Wanita; Vitamin A; His Spirit Lives On; Baby Please Don't Go; Stack Of Dollars; Mellow Apples; Wild Cow Moan; Pea Vine Blues; Bad And Weakhearted Blues; King Biscuit Stomp; I'm A Highway Man; Banta Rooster Blues; Mean Step Father Blues; House Lady Blues; Don't You Leave Me Here; Jivin' Woman; She's A Married Woman;Chasey Collins w/ Joe Williams:Walking Blues; Atlanta Town?

Two of the CDs I picked up at Port Townsend this year were of the early recordings of Big Joe Williams. I have been listening to them a lot, particularly the 10 tracks from his first two sessions. His first session, on February 25, 1935, yielded 6 tunes, one of which was the unbelievable duet of "Somebody's Been Borrowin' that Stuff" with Henry Townsend. The second session, on October 31, 1935, resulted in four more tunes, and was done with a line-up of Joe joined by Dad Tracy on one-string fiddle and Chasey Collins on washboard.

Big Joe's playing on these two sessions is quite amazing. Everything is in Open G tuning, so a certain sameness of tonality and very pared back harmonic content results, but Joe's rhythmic imagination and ability to execute his ideas in the moment has never been equalled in this genre. His right hand approach combines powerful thumb popping of bass notes and lines with vigorous runs in the treble and an array of strumming and brushing techniques that has to be heard to be believed. In fact, hearing him reminds me of what an under-utilized technique strumming can be in this style--the tendency is to concentrate on picking so much. Supposedly Joe had a cousin, Jesse Logan, who never recorded, and who surpassed him in this style--I'm doubtful that anybody could beat Joe at it. The older I get, the more appreciate music like this that treads a fine line between wildness and control. I can't figure out why Joe isn't universally recognized as one of the major heavyweights in this style. On these recordings, for spontaneity and executing fresh ideas in the moment, I think he even puts Charlie Patton in the shade. (Of course Patton had a more varied sound).

The tunes with the one-string fiddle and the washboard are fantastic. The fiddle is simultaneously repetitious and exciting, an unusual combo, and Chasey Collins, on washboard, was a monster listener. He often goes right with Joe as he shifts from swung eight notes to triplets to sixteenth note strumming, and it was obviously not something worked out in advance.

I think maybe the fact that Joe did not have a real distinctive voice may have worked against him, in terms of recognition for his music. His singing is expressive and serviceable, but not special in the way Patton's or Son House's was. Anyway, I have been enjoying this music so much I wanted to mention it in case any of you wanted to check it out and see what you think.
All best,

uncle bud:
Hi John,

Welcome back! Tuscany, eh? Not too shabby...

I presume the Big Joe recordings you're referring to are these Documents, Vol 1  1935-1941 and Vol 2 1945-49? I don't have these, but will check my collection for early Big Joe to see if any of this early material is on compilations. I am not too familiar with him, aside from the footage from the videos Stefan Grossman sells and some folk scare era stuff.


Hi Andrew,
Yes, the two CDs are  the Document ones you mentioned.  Evidently they have been re-mastered since their original incarnation on Document, and provided with new artwork as well.  Sound is excellent--you can really hear what Joe is doing well.
It might be fun to devote a class to this music next year, certainly not anything in the nature of a transcription, but more just outlining the left-hand vocabulary and working on building up the right hand repertoire of thumb-popping, strums, etc. Then, just a lot of playing with very little structure to work on building up the reflexes.  I admit to being drawn to this sound partially because so few people nowadays play anything with this crazed kind of energy.
All Best,

Hey John,
     Yes, welcome back. And thanks again for that great lesson. I've been busy as hell with work, but every blues song I listen to I'm working out the key. I think a class like that would go over well at PT, although I suppose many of your regulars are beyond that point.
     I've have been fascinated by the recording of Little Leg Woman that starts out the Yazoo compilation, Lonesome Road Blues, L-1038(got that one UB?), and recently purchased Vol 1 (BDCD-6003) as part of a large batch from Document. I hadn't really given it much of a listen, yet. Did last night. I think a class would be in order. His rhythmic changes are great, and I could use more work in strumming and brushing. Like you say, we're so caught up in picking. Seems like an area where I'd have to let go of fingerpicks, which I'm kinda leaning toward from time to time. Also, that sense of being on the edge of control. I was kinda posting about that over on the 'Shed. The diff between Eurocentric, more controlled, and Afrocentric, having a lot of accidental sounds giving more spirit to the music.
     I also really dig Chasey Collins washboard. I really got into playing wb at PT this year. I picked up a nice old blue enamel National on ebay (recommended by Orville J.) and really started playing it for the first time at camp. Great listener is exactly right. I've also been listening to Bull City Red on BBF's sides, and I guess I should pick up some Washboard Sam, too.
     Thanks for focusing my attention this way.
All for now.
John C.

uncle bud:

--- Quote from: waxwing on August 30, 2003, 02:00:31 PM ---
     I've have been fascinated by the recording of Little Leg Woman that starts out the Yazoo compilation, Lonesome Road Blues, L-1038(got that one UB?)
--- End quote ---

Nope, that's one of the Yazoos I don't have. Checked the other compilations from Yazoo and others I have, and nary a early Big Joe in the lot.


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