This post is an expanded version of a 2009 post about Big Joe Williams, by far the most popular material on this blog.
I love the look and sound of Big Joe Williams’ guitars. He took a regular 6-string guitar with a raised pick guard, doubled the first, second, and fourth strings (like on a 12-string guitar or a mandolin), and then added a pickup and tone pot. With duct tape and paperclips, it seems. He would apparently play these guitars through amps jerry-rigged with pie tins and beer cans. The story is that he modified his guitars this way and tuned them to unusual variant tunings to keep others from playing them.
Besides his unusual guitars, he is best known for writing the popular blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go. From his Wikipedia article:
Born in Crawford, Mississippi, Williams as a youth began wandering across the United States busking and playing stores, bars, alleys and work camps. In the early 1920s he worked in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930 for the Okeh label.
In 1934, he was in St. Louis, where he met record producer Lester Melrose who signed him to Bluebird Records in 1935. He stayed with Bluebird for ten years, recording such blues hits as “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (1935) and “Crawlin’ King Snake” (1941), both songs later covered by many other performers. He also recorded with other blues singers, including Sonny Boy Williamson I, Robert Nighthawk and Peetie Wheatstraw.
Williams remained a noted blues artist in the 1950s and 1960s, with his guitar style and vocals becoming popular with folk-blues fans. He recorded for the Trumpet, Delmark, Prestige and Vocalion labels, among others. 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.
Williams’ guitar playing was in the Delta blues style, and yet was unique. He played driving rhythm and virtuosic lead lines simultaneously and sang over it all. He played with picks both on his thumb and index finger, plus his guitar was heavily modified. Williams added a rudimentary electric pick-up, whose wires coiled all over the top of his guitar. He also added three extra strings, creating unison pairs for the first, second and fourth strings. During the 1920s and 1930s, Williams had gradually added these extra strings in order to keep other guitar players from being able to play his guitar.
He died December 17, 1982 in Macon, Mississippi.
This performance is one in a series originally broadcast by a public television station in Seattle.
This is a clip from Legends of Country Blues Guitar Vol. 2. The artist featured in the end of the clip, after Big Joe’s performance, is Houston Stackhouse.