|superb photograph: apologies for not knowing who to credit|
Big Joe Williams was born 110 years ago today. Here's his entry in my Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:
Williams, Big Joe [1903 - 1982]
Big Joe Williams, not to be confused with Joe Williams, singer with the Count Basie Band in the 1950s, was born in Crawford, Mississippi, on October 16, 1903 but began traveling beyond Mississippi in his youth, playing guitar and singing in lumber camps, and settled to an unsettled life - the classic roaming blues musician. He first recorded in 1935, gaining what was, in the Depression, an unusual 10-year contract with Bluebird.
Linda Dahl, author of Stormy Weather, 1984, a book of profiles of women (mostly jazz) singers, claims that Mary Williams Johnson, not husband Big Joe, wrote his classic ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, but Dahl’s source is almost certainly careless assumption from the sleevenotes of a series of LPs on the Rosetta label, which were, like Dahl, trying to raise the profile of women’s contributions to music. This admirable aim is not served by dodgy assertions. (At another point the same Mary Williams was the wife of Lonnie Johnson. No claim seems to have been made for her as the composer of his material.)
In any case, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ is strongly based on the older common-stock number known as ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here’, which was at least 30 years old by the time Big Joe recorded ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. It was recorded in its traditional form by Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Rede, as by Sunny Boy And His Pals, in Chicago, on about April 8, 1927 (the same session that yielded the wonderful ‘Hey! Lawdy Mama - The France Blues’, which became one of the treasures of the blues revival era, covered, for instance, by Mark Spoelstra on that compilation album The Blues Project in 1964.)
Either way, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ was a big hit for Williams, and he had a lesser success with a 1941 version of ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’. Well-known for his unique 9-string guitar and his erratic delivery, he performed with many of the greats of his day and, unlike so many, continued as a working musician all the way through till the blues revival movement occurred. He didn’t need to be ‘rediscovered’: he was already around.
When Dylan paid his return visit to Minnesota in December 1961, and was recorded in a Minneapolis apartment, one of his best song-performances was of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go.’ (Dylan has rarely performed this song since those early days; its most recent rendition was when Dylan came onstage and performed it during the encore of a Tom Petty set in Holmdel, New Jersey on August 10, 2003.)
At some point, Dylan sought Williams out and played with him. According to Blues Revue magazine, the Chicago-based Delmark Records founder Bob Koester (pronounced Chester) got Williams booked into Gerde’s Folk City in Fall 1961, and over a two-week period Dylan sat in with him: and before the end of the run, they were being billed as Big Bill and Little Joe. But according to Robert Shelton’s Dylan biography No Direction Home, 1986, it was in early 1962 that Mike Porco was considering booking Williams, and Dylan pressed him on it, saying ‘He’s the greatest old bluesman. You gotta put him in here.’ Shelton says that he was given a three-week booking that February and that Dylan showed up each night and jammed with him onstage several times. This would seem the more likely version, especially since the album Big Joe Williams at Folk City was recorded there on February 26, according to its own sleevenotes.
(Extra confusion is added by the Koester camp by his claim that Dylan first showed up at a Big Joe gig in Chicago back in 1957 and befriended him then; Williams makes it worse by claiming that he first met Dylan in the 1940s, when ‘he was very very young, probably no more than six.’ Dylan himself compounds the confusion by writing, as an aside in Chronicles - and it is the book’s only mention of Williams - that ‘I’d played with Big Joe Williams when I was just a kid.’)
At any rate, soon after the Gerde’s Folk City booking, in March 1962, Big Joe was in Brooklyn recording for Victoria Spivey’s small label Spivey Records when Dylan asked her if she could use a little white boy on one of her records. She put him back with the almost 60 year old Williams (not an easy man to play with), and the result was a tremendous version of ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’ on which Dylan, aged 20, plays very convincing blues harmonica and is also allowed to sing back-up vocals on the title line - and indeed more than back-up, since twice in the course of the performance Big Joe is generous enough to keep silent and let Dylan sing the line alone.
Since Williams was trying to sound still in his prime, and Dylan was trying to sound as ancient as the hills, it’s a comical moot point here as to who sounds the older of the two. Dylan also plays harp behind Williams on a less striking ‘Wichita’, and on a formless jam later titled ‘Big Joe, Dylan and Victoria’ and behind Spivey’s vocals and piano on ‘It’s Dangerous’.
In 1980 Mike Bloomfield published a short memoir, Me and Big Joe, which not only portrayed the difficulties of their relationship very honestly but also, in Peter Narváez’ phrase, illustrated ‘the cross-cultural triumph of the blues tradition’. Bloomfield wrote: ‘Joe’s world wasn’t my world, but his music was. It was my life; it would be my life. So playing on was all I could do, and I did it the best that I was able. And the music I played, I knew where it came from; and there was not any way I’d forget.’
As it turned out, Mike Bloomfield died before his mentor, in February 1981. Big Joe Williams died in Macon, Georgia on December 17, 1982.
[Big Joe Williams: ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, Chicago, 31 Oct 1935; Big Joe Williams: ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’, Chicago 27 Mar 1941, 1st vinyl-issued Big Joe Williams: Crawlin’ King Snake, RCA International INT-1087, London, 1970; Big Joe Williams at Folk City, 26 Feb 1962, Bluesville BVLP 1067, US, 1962. Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Rede, c.8 Apr 1927, 1st vinyl-issued Really! The Country Blues, Origin Jazz Library OJL-2, NY, c.1961. Sunny Boy And His Pals: ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here’, Chicago, c.8 Apr 1927. Big Joe Williams & Bob Dylan: NYC, 2 Mar 1962, ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’ & ‘Wichita’, Three Kings & A Queen, Spivey LP 1004, NY, 1964; Big Joe Williams, Victoria Spivey & Bob Dylan, NYC, 2 Mar 1962, ‘Big Joe, Dylan & Victoria’ and Victoria Spivey & Bob Dylan, ditto, ‘It’s Dangerous’, Three Kings & A Queen Vol. 2, Spivey LP 1014, NY, 1972. Bob Dylan: ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, Minneapolis, 22 Dec 1961.
Bob Dylan Chronicles quote, p. 182. ‘Big Joe Williams: Memory of the Road’, Blues Revue, Mar-Apr 1995, no further details given, précis seen online 5 Oct 2005 at www.expectingrain.com/dok/who/w/williamsbigjoe.html. Shelton ditto. Peter Narváez: ‘Living Blues Journal: The Paradoxical Aesthetics of the Blues Revival’, collected in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, ed. Neil V. Rosenberg, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Mike Bloomfield, with S. Summerfield: Me and Big Joe, San Francisco: Re/Search Productions, 1980.]