'The Audition Tapes': A friend remembers Black Prairie blues legend Big Joe Williams with original recordings

September 22, 2012 7:35:54 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


"There's a funny story about that ... " Blewett Thomas said more than once during a recent afternoon of reminiscing about his old friend, Big Joe Williams. There would be. Stories, that is. Gleaned from 1975, when a younger Blewett drove from Columbus to Crawford to seek out one of the few living purveyors of old country and delta blues, to 1982, when Williams died.  


Joe Lee Williams was an American original. "Dynamic and magnetic -- like John Wayne, larger than life," said Thomas, whose affectionate respect for the rambunctious and oft-irascible "King of the Nine-String Guitar" is evident. 


Their bond may have seemed unlikely -- a white boy with a degree in jazz studies from the University of Southern Mississippi, destined to become an attorney, and an aging black man who never learned to read or write. But their initial meetings grew into something deeper. Thomas began accompanying Big Joe, who was dealing with diabetes and emphysema, to gigs. Williams would dub Thomas his "road agent." 


"Looking back on it, our ramblings could best be summed up as Huck Finn and Jim in the 20th century," smiled Thomas. 


The pair eventually recorded several of Big Joe's songs "around the kitchen table," so to speak. Thomas has recently released six of them in CD format -- complete with spoken narrative by the elder musician. 


"Big Joe Williams: The Audition Tapes 1978" preserves the organic moments and allows other blues devotees and historians to savor them. 




Finding Joe 


It all started in September 1975, after Thomas read a Commercial Dispatch article by Birney Imes about Big Joe titled "Crawford Man in Music Business 60 Years." For a musicologist, the lure was irresistible.  


"I set out to meet Big Joe. I wanted to learn more about music and guitar playing from him," recalled Thomas, who currently practices law in Gulfport but returns frequently to Columbus to visit family.  


"Big Joe later told me he knew when I first started looking for him, but he decided to dodge me for a few weeks, to 'see what you were up to.' So began our friendship and adventures," Thomas shares in the record's liner notes. 


Williams was a walking font of knowledge. During his remarkable life, he'd known most of the players who wrote blues history. He'd ridden the rails with Honeyboy Edwards, traveled the roads with Muddy Waters and counted Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Son House among his circle. 


After busking around the country as a youngster, playing stores, work camps and anywhere else he could, Williams joined the Bluebird label and debuted songs like "Baby, Please Don't Go," which would later be covered by a host of artists, including The Doors, Bob Dylan and Aerosmith. 


In the 1950s and 1960s, Joe's heavily modified nine-string guitar sound and gritty intensity became popular with folk-blues fans. He toured Europe and Japan in the late '60s and early '70s and performed at major American festivals. Even after health and age brought him back to Mississippi, he still traveled to gigs far afield and close to home. Patrons of Mack Banks Supper Club in Artesia were fortunate enough to see him fairly often, according to Richard Ramsey of the Howlin' Wolf Blues Society in West Point. 


During his later years in Crawford, Williams shared some of his experiences with Thomas. 


"Big Joe was a reservoir of incredulous stories, but more times than not his most unbelievable tales proved to be true," his friend acknowledged.  




The tapes 


On long, hot summer nights Big Joe liked to hang out in the air conditioned trailer Thomas kept in the country near Crawford. The two spent hours listening to tapes of other musicians. 


"The more he'd listen, the more he'd get this artistic pride and would say, 'We gotta make some tapes!'" Thomas recalled. And that's what they did. 


Holing up with two days' worth of barbecue and homemade sour dough cake from Thomas' grandmother, the pair would spend weekends here and there with a four-track recorder and two mics set up on the small kitchen bar.  


When Thomas learned of a grant available through the folk arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, they decided to apply. Thus, the 1978 "audition tapes" they recorded as part of the application. It is these tapes the six songs on the CD come from. 


In spoken excerpts between tracks, Williams voice appeals to the grant committee and shares snippets of his life. He speaks of hopping freight trains and hobo'ing as a youth, of some of his song inspirations, and of giving Dylan "his start." 


"There's one young white fella, Bobby Dylan, first recorded with me. I was with him just a week ago in Jackson. ... He appreciates me a lots and I was glad to see him. He makin' all that money, but he hugged me," Williams says. 


Indeed, the CD package, replete with photographs (most taken by photographer and blues researcher Axel K├╝stner of Germany, a repeat visitor to Columbus), includes an image of Williams and Dylan together backstage in a relaxed moment. 


In the end, Williams was not awarded the grant, but Thomas preserved the original recordings. Several tapes were lost when his Gulf Coast home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but what survived is an intimate glimpse of a Black Prairie blues legend and another era. 


From the CD, Big Joe's voice, roughened with age and a world of blues, says: "Goin' back to remember my old friends, from Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Charley Patton, to Son House ... Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Swift, Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Slim ... all of my buddies ... ain't but a very few of us left, just a very few of us living. ... I'm older now, but I ain't too old to fight the battles." 




Closing chapter 


Big Joe Williams was inducted into the Blue Hall of Fame in 1992, 10 years after his death. The man who had never learned to read or write played to audiences in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, England and throughout the U.S. and left behind an indelible impression. 


He was buried in a private ceremony near Crawford, where a headstone paid for by friends and fans stands today. Williams' close friend and famed bluesman Charlie Musselwhite delivered the eulogy; he also contributes to the heartfelt liner notes of the "Audition Tapes" release. 


Thomas said, "Big Joe was part of my life experience. The CD was done out of love. It was done to remember him. Big Joe never lost his dreams. There was a little boy inside there; he never grew old, even if his body did." 


(Editor's note: "Big Joe Williams: The Audition Tapes 1978" is available in Columbus at the Columbus Arts Council's Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St., 662-328-2787.)

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.