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If it ain't been in a pawn shop, it can't play the blues - Frank Edwards, holding a Silvertone guitar (two pickups) and harmonica on a neckrack

Author Topic: Robert Pete Williams Vol. 1--I`m As Blue As A Man Can Be, Arhoolie CD-394  (Read 2096 times)

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Offline Slack

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By John Miller

This CD presents performances by Robert Pete Williams that, with one exception ("Tippin' In"), were recorded by Dr. Harry Oster in 1959 and 1960, when Robert Pete was still incarcerated at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana.? The music from these sessions seems one of the purest manifestations of Robert Pete's unique approach to music-making.? The sound of his guitar and the way he used it, the way he phrased vocally, and his take on the blues form all existed at that time at a pretty extreme remove from the blues as they are most often played and sung.? This, combined with the fact that Dr. Oster was able and willing to let Robert Pete play songs for as long as he wanted as he was recorded makes for an exceptionally rich representation of Robert Pete's music.

The program opens with "Pardon Denied Again", played in E minor, standard tuning, with extreme bends of the G string up to a unison with the B string.? Phrasing begins in a very free-form fashion and eventually evolves into a more conventional form that bears some resemblence to Blind Willie Johnson's "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes".? On this song and elsewhere throughout the program, Robert Pete's lyrics so far transcend the stylistic cliches of the genre that they have a capacity to bring you up short as a listener.? He says,? ?
? ? I've got a big family on my hands, they's out there in that free world?
? ?Waiting on me to re-appear, oh Lord, there were many return again back to my home

"This Old Wild Life" is played on Dr. Oster's 12-string guitar, in the key of D, standard tuning, in the Dorian mode Robert Pete favored at that time.? "Just Tippin' In" is a kind of ruminatory, inward-looking tune in D, with the great line,
? ? ? ?I done got lonesome here, I need someone to consolate my mind

"Louise", as played by Robert Pete, and he recorded it many times, must stand as one of the greatest covers ever.? It has come a long way from Johnny Temple's version, and it is really spooky.? Robert Pete plays it in B minor, tuned two whole steps low, and the sound of his? guitar is quite eerie--it is barely recognizable as a guitar and sounds more like some kind of mysterious African instrument.

"Church On Fire #2" is a very free-form religious number with improvised lyrics, in which Robert Pete uses a low-tuned G tuning, DGDGBE, to play out of a D position.? The way he plays runs across the neck at the 5th to 7th fret, utilizing open strings and extreme bends, is unique to him, I think."Texas Blues", in A standard, utilizes an incredibly funky groove that he was to employ on several songs later in his career, including "Poor Bob's Blues".? The title cut, "I'm As Blue As A Man Can Be", is played on a 12-string in E minor, and it phrases in a chanting sort of way, somewhat akin to Sleepy John Estes's "Someday Baby".

 "Up and Down Blues" is a musical and lyric tour de force.? Against a shifting bass line, Robert Pete sings the following lines, among others.
? ?You know a lot of times, I wish, baby, I wish that I was dead and gone
? ?And tell me why you wish that, baby, that a criminal ain't no more than a dog
? ?
? You know when a man is down, it ain't long before his folks forget why he's in
? ?
? ?Sometimes that I sit down, I have to write to myself sometime
? ?I have to fool the other inmates like I'm receiving mail from home

"So Much Is Happenin' In This Wicked World" is another lyrically improvised religious number in E. "Come Here Baby" is a brief funky number in A. The epic "Levee Camp Blues", clocking in at over 7 minutes (!), seems to work from a sort of Lightnin' Hopkins model instrumentally.? Lyrically and in terms of phrasing, it is all Robert Pete's.? Among the more surprising lyrics-
? ?Oh look yonder on that levee, on that coal black gal of mine
? ?Oh she walk like Maggie Campbell, oh Lord she walk too slow
? ?
? ?Oh when I was working for Mr. Charlie, I did as I please
? ?But since I got chere (sic), boy I got that work release.

On "Two Wings", another religious number, Robert Pete uses Spanish tuning to play in C, resulting in a unique sound.? "Angola Special", played in E minor on the 12-string has an unforgettable line
? ?Come here baby, tell poor Bob your downfall

"Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" is played in E, uncharacteristically without a slide, but Robert Pete's bends are so extreme that he is able to achieve the vocal sound the slide normally provides on this song."Please Lord, Help Me on My Way" is a more conventional religious number in Spanish.

Taken in conjunction with Arhoolie's two other releases of Robert Pete Williams's music, we are fortunate to have a massive documentation of the music of one of the most original and striking musicians ever to work in the idiom.? And as far as that goes, this CD is a pretty massive achievement in itself.? If you have no prior experience of Robert Pete Williams's music, this CD will provide as good a picture as any of the stage his music was at when first encountered by someone other than the friends, neighbors, and fellow inmates who had heard him up to the point at which these recordings were made.? I can only imagine Dr. Oster's shock and amazement when he began to realize the scope of what Robert Pete Williams had to say.

Program:? ?Pardon Denied Again; This Wild Old Life; Just Tippin' In; Louise; Church on Fire, #2; Texas Blues; I'm As Blue As A Man Can Be; Up and Down Blues; So Much Is Happenin' In This Wicked World;? Come Here Baby; Levee Camp Blues; Two Wings; Angola Special; Motherless Children Have A Hard Time; Please Lord, Help Me On My Way
« Last Edit: July 04, 2005, 04:46:25 PM by Johnm »


  • Guest
All that info about Robert Pete Williams tunings is great. Thankyou..
Is "Just Tippin In" in std tuning?
For "Church On Fire #2" should that be DGDGBE?

Online Johnm

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Hi Si,
Yes, "Just Tippin' In" is in standard tuning.  Thanks for catching my error in reporting the tuning for "Church On Fire #2"--your assumption was correct, and I have made the correction in the review.  Thanks for the careful reading, I appreciate it.
All best,


  • Guest
This made me take the time and go back to the record in question... thanx for the nice "in-depth" reminder! appreciated!


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