The old line “When they made him, they broke the mold” might well have been coined to describe Big Joe Williams, a squat, quarrelsome, broad-chested man who even in old age could have broken the mold himself. He is best known for “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Crawlin’ King Snake,” songs that have been covered by everyone from Muddy Waters to Ted Nugent. Joe’s heyday was the 1930s and 1940s, and after his star faded he stayed more or less continuously on the road, and the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s gave him new fans and even a chance to record.
This footage offers a pretty good look at Big Joe’s battle-scarred nine-string guitar, which was the core of his distinctive sound. Big Joe played country blues in a hard, percussive style in which the guitar served as a drum as well as a stringed instrument. On some occasions he was known to dangle a beer can against the strings to impart a buzzing tone to his playing. Big Joe was also fond of using strange guitar tunings to throw off anyone trying to imitate his style. “When I saw him playing at Mike Bloomfield’s ‘blues night’ at the Fickle Pickle,” recalled Barry Lee Pearson, “Williams was playing an electric nine-string guitar through a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that. When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself. The total effect of this incredible apparatus produced the most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard.”
One of the more curious blues documents is a pamphlet called Me and Big Joe, Michael Bloomfield’s account of times he spent with Big Joe during his days in the early 1960s as a young blues freak in Chicago, before he became known as the razor-sharp guitarist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Like a Rolling Stone” and Highway 6 Revisited. The two met at a Chicago nightclub called the Blind Pig:
Joe would get a few beers or a little hard liquor in him (peppermint schnapps and Gordon’s gin were his choices) and suddenly you wouldn’t be dealing with a normal man — he couldn’t talk coherently and nothing would make sense to him. Behind larger amounts of alcohol he could get physically violent. But as nasty as he could get when he was drunk, that’s how compassionate and big-hearted he could be when he was sober, and often his ways were a real Southern gentleman’s. His manner could be touching — very sweet, gallant, courtly.
At times the booklet reads like a collaboration between Flannery O’Connor and Hieronymous Bosch, as with this account of a visit with harmonica player Jazz Gillum:
Joe took me to see him on a very uncomfortable summer day, with both the temperature and the humidity up in the nineties — the kind of day when doing nothing makes you sweat; when dirt forms up under your fingernails for no reason at all. We drove out to the West Side and stopped in front of a tiny frame house, just a shanty, really. Wen we walked into the place I thought we’d hit Hell City — as hot as it was outside, it was insufferably worse within. All the windows were shut down tight. Clad in a huge brown overcoat and sweating profusely, Gillum stood outside a woodstove, stoking a raging fire. He was extremely paranoid. He’d written the very successful “Key to the Highway” and had never gotten the publishing money for it, and was afraid I’d come to steal his other tunes. We didn’t stay long enough to change his mind.
There are plenty of Big Joe samplers out there, most of them worthwhile as an introduction to his singular take on blues. (Just don’t get him confused with Joe Williams, the swing-band shouter who’s an excellent performer in his own right.) One of my favorites is Hand Me Down My Old Walking Stick, recorded in London at the end of his career, which opens with a big, raunchy slide note so loud that one imagines coffee cups and papers flying around the studio as the engineers scramble to adjust the sound levels. Whenever he had a guitar in his hands, Big Joe more than lived up to his nickname.