Bill Williams- Low And Lonesome
"A 73-year old guitarist can be forgiven for losing the sureness of touch and loose co-ordination demanded in the lost art of blues-playing, particularly if he offers original or authentic material to an audience which has been largely denied the chance to hear yesterday's greats in person. If he is 73 and yet betrays no hint of his age in his approach to the most complicated and diverse guitar styles, one can only marvel in disbelief.
Disbelief is the inevitable reaction to incredible Bill Williams, a former partner of Blind Blake who is without doubt the most technically accomplished living country blues guitarist. Nothing about his effortless playing suggests the now familiar relic of the remote past who must be patronized to demonstrate that country blues are alive and well (they aren't). His present day skills not only put most other oldsters to shame, but are sufficient to have made him a stand- out in any era.
Yet at this writing Williams is practically unknown beyond the confines of Greenup, Kentucky, a small town near the Ohio border whose locale figures as background in the writings of novelist Jesse Stuart. In his very obscurity, Williams is a cherished but little-encountered blues archetype - the unsung great who outplays most of his more prestigious contemporaries.
In every other respect, however, Williams is a refreshing departure from blues tradition. While the most familiar species of bluesman shamelessly exaggerates his musical feats before anyone gullible enough to listen, the unassuming Bill Williams is horrified by even favorable notoriety. He derives greater satisfaction from the placid virtues of solid citizenship (he is a Kentucky Colonel and an election supervisor) and rugged self-sufficiency (he built his own home and raises much of his own food) than his unsolicited position as the blues' most exciting "find" in a long time. Perhaps because he is by now taken for granted in a community where, as one performer puts it, "You're practically a foreigner if you don't play some kind of instrument", he can't quite believe the furor he has begun to generate among blues enthusiasts. "If someone as dumb as me can play," he insists, "anybody can."
His career is no less exceptional than his selfdeprecating attitudes. He came by all of his dazzling technique without any instruction while living sixty miles in the country beyond his native Richmond, Virginia, where he was born in 1897. His brother James. a ragtime guitarist, took pains to safeguard his instrument from Bill's curious hands by tuning his strings so slack that they were unplayable before leaving for work each morning. One day Bill seized the guitar and managed to figure out the chords for Yankee Doodle Dandy, a song he knew from school and still delights in performing, with ragtime embellishments.
Bill subsequently met few guitarists in the Richmond area, but his style nevertheless developed the ragtime emphasis and smooth picking patterns one associates with the East Coast musician. He was first exposed to blues through an old recording of St. Louis Blues a 1914 hit which received wide contemporary pop treatment and would, for the general white audience, practically define the entire blues form. Another early acquisition was the Lucky Blues, which Bill adapted from the work of a local guitarist. He also played pieces like John Henry with a bottleneck in open E tuning (a method he has since discarded). Its strongest inclinations, however, were towards the key of C, the one he considered best suited for his voice. This preference was to favor his development as a ragtime virtuoso, for C is the usual key of guitar rags.
Although Bill must have displayed phenomenal ability in his youth (when, he says, he was at his true peak), he never played music professionally, and never earned money for entertaining at parties and dances. Unlike most contemporary blues singers, he actually preferred manual labor to the idea of playing for a living, even though his jobs were often so fatiguing as to preclude off-hours practice. At the age of fourteen he became a waterboy on a railroad in Wilmington, Delaware. Then he was packed off to relatives in the small town of Lester, Colorado, in his family's old-fashioned belief that labor in the mines would steady his delicate "nerves". But mine conditions proved so unnerving that he virtually fled to Pensacola, Florida, where he became a timber-cutter.
While living in Bristol, Tennessee in the early 1920's Bill met the peerless Blind Blake who was then living with an elderly woman (perhaps a relative) in a desolate nearby country area. For four months Bill worked as Blake's regular second guitarist, always picking his accompaniments instead of strumming in the usual fashion of the back-up musician. Blake was particularly taken with Low and Lonesome, but never borrowed Bill's blues motifs, although his own repertoire was then limited to a few basic pieces. When they parted company Bill worked out arrangements of Blake's trademark songs (including My Girlfriend Left Me and Too Tight) in a nostalgic recollection of his friend, for whom he had both personal and professional regard. Today he ventures only the just criticism that "my man Blake", as he calls him, tended to repeat himself too often in the key of C.
In 1922 Bill left Bristol with no special destination and jumped off a freight train in Greenup. He accepted a job with the C&O Railroad in nearby Russell, Kentucky, and has lived in the area ever since. His railroad routes - to Covington, Ky. and Columbus, Ohio - have largely circumscribed his subsequent career. As the population of this region is almost exclusively white, Bill hasn't played for any Negro dances since coming to Greenup. Not surprisingly, his material betrays this immersion into the white musical community. However, by applying the inventive and vigorous picking techniques of the true blues or rag guitarist to whatever songs he chooses to adapt, he is able to enhance even the most commonplace pieces.
To assuage his audience on those occasions when his usual accompanists failed to keep playing dates, Williams transposed a number of traditional fiddle tunes to guitar: Mockingbird, Long Way To Tipperary (a pop song of World War I vintage) Turkey In The Straw, and Old Joe Clark. These guitar interpretations are unique. Other songs were taken from the popular recordings of Charlie Poole and Riley Puckett, a skilled hillbilly guitarist who once expressed personal admiration for Bill's playing. There is also some Merle Travis influence on Bill's techniques, but this influence may be mutual, since he recalls meeting the younger Travis after his own style matured.
Some of Bill's most arresting pieces are too exotic to fit into any known category, and ultimately make the labels "ragtime" or "blues" guitarist inadequate to describe him. He learned one of his real showpieces, the minor-keyed Pocahontas, from an Italian railroader he met in the 1920's and in turn tutored in blues-playing. (Although the man spoke no English, his version had English lyrics.) Bill's exquisite arrangement of Lazy River far removes it from its usual bland pop moorings and his own picking style, and would have done credit to ultrasophisticated bluesmen like Lonnie Johnson. Even the "hard" blues, I'll Follow You, represents a total departure from all known East Coast blues-playing; but is surprisingly reminiscent of the mainstream Texas sounds of Willie Reed and Will Day. Besides these unconventional works, Bill offers finger-picked renditions of Christmas carols and the Star-Spangled Banner, demonstrating his professed ability to master any tune his listener can hum.
Perhaps as uncanny as Bill's versatility is his very preservation of the gifts that most country bluesmen have long since lost with time or disinterest. Within the last twenty years, or long after the commercial demise of country blues, Bill was figuring out classics like I'll Follow You and Chicken, a minstrel song probably dating to the turn of the century. Before his retirement from the railroad in 1958 his continued practicing was partly attributable to a Sunday morning shift as camp cook that often left him with free time on his hands and no company besides his guitar. Eight years ago a doctor told him that the exercise afforded by guitar-playing was perfect therapy for his arthritic wrist. This advice, coupled with constant local demands for his appearances at social gatherings, has probably kept Bill's music from declining. Today he shows no signs of slowing down, although he insists that the performing grind is undermining his health, and periodically announces his "retirement".
If Bill is increasingly reluctant to perform publically he is even more so to record. Despite a rare command of material that enables him to produce many perfect first takes in a recording studio, he would much prefer less formal performances for friends. But for the unselfish zeal of Charlie Parsons, a local guitar teacher and coauthor of a book on guitar technique, Bill would have remained forever in contented oblivion. A demonstration tape Parsons practically tricked him into recording proved so convincing that Blue Goose immediately scheduled a session - over Bill's protests that he would need three years to get in shape for recording. Once company officials arrived in Greenup, Bill asked: "What you fellows doin' here recording me?" His album should provide the best answer."
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