Robert Pete Williams – Review

Robert Pete Williams

(Fat Possum)
by Jon Sarre

This is a sad story, but, y’know, it’s the Blues so I guess traditionally, it’s supposed to be. Robert Pete Williams passed away back in 1980, wasted by cancer; an original talent pretty much ignored by the market and most of his contemporaries. This record is a re-release of his first LP, put out in 1971 by the Ahura Mazda label, and Fat Possum’s got it back out there to redress some years of oversight. The guy, tho’ not an altogether self-taught musician, somehow invented his own style of playing. Some usedta call it “African,” but Williams always just said he picked it up outta the “atmosphere,” like on “Goodbye Slim Harpo,” his chords wrap around the lyrics, not like how Mississippi Fred McDowell used his guitar for punctuation, but more like two people havin’ a conversation and neither really listenin’ to the other but still finishin’ each other’s sentences. Weird, I tell ya.

There’s a picture of Williams on the back cover: He’s a big guy, smokin’ a cigarette, and his hat’s on at a cocky angle. He looks like he coulda been the guy who did time at Angloa State Penn in Louisiana for killin’ a man (self defense, he always maintained). He was “discovered” in prison. When ya hear the guy sing’n’play tho’, it was he who discovered a world unknown to mebbe him and a few others, a strange world of pain and sounds that only he could hear and replicate (he’s actually been described as “avant garde” and Captain Beefheart was said to’ve been influenced by Williams’ music). You hear a rooster crowin’ in the background of this stuff from time to time and it’s no studio trickery, they actually recorded the thing at his house and the “cawwwwwws” rise up between the hauntin’ chords and the pain in his voice as Williams runs thru the prison ballad “Farm Blues.” It happens too, later on, on the Big Joe Williams “Baby Please Don’t Go” twist “Got Me Way Down Here.” The twist is that the guitar lines are so off the standard (and everyone’s done “Baby Please Don’t Go”) that it doesn’t matter where he cribbed the lyrics from. Likewise on “Tombstone Blues,” where he quotes St. Louis Jimmy’s “Goin’ Down Slow” and god knows what else (apparently Williams was big on on-the-spot improvisation). Sure, his “Vietnam Blues” is at least thematically similar to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Viet Nam War Blues,” but it’s otherwise totally Robert Pete Williams. Where’d he come from? Too late to tell, but it’s still worth a listen.
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