Robert Pete Williams was one of the great bluesmen of the last century. Williams played a plugged in acoustic guitar with haunting scales and a raw, stripped down sound like John Lee Hooker. Like Hooker, we can really hear how blues music could have evolved from its older African cousin. Some have compared Robert Pete’s playing somewhat close to the guitar style of Ali Farka Touré, the world renowned African player. Whatever the comparison, there can be no dispute that his music outstretched into another realm of early American roots music.
Robert Pete Williams was born in Zachary, Louisiana March 14, 1914. He was reared with no formal education and spent many days toiling as a farm hand in the heat of the Deep South. He got his first guitar in 1934, which was a homemade instrument made out of a cigar box. He played local dances, country suppers, parties, and fish fries. All of that changed quickly, when he served time for murdering a man in a bar in 1956. In Angola prison he met ethnomusicologist Dr. Harry Oster and Richard Allen. They persuaded prison officials that their new found talent had committed his crime in self-defense, by 1959 he was out of jail. In that same year, the “Angola Prisoners’ Blues” record was released.
By the time the folk revival of the 1960’s came around, those recordings found wide audiences of enthusiastic, young fans. The spectators who came to his shows were infatuated by the ex-con guitar player. He sang about the plight of a black man struggling to survive behind bars, and on the outside weary world of the Mississippi Delta.
There’s great videos that shows a hard working gentleman gathering scrap metal, playing his music with a sweaty brow and telling his story about how he came to shoot a man to defend his own life. Robert Pete Williams died of heart disease December 31, 1980. He’s buried in Scotlandville, LA.
Robert Pete Williams – Scrap Iron Blues (tells the story of the murder, “like it went”)
Bukka White had his first name misspelled by the record label, Vocalion. This might give us a little insight about the social nature of his professional relationship with them. We can only speculate why he kept that spelling of his name for the rest of his music career. But Bukka White was no fool and as his career progressed, anyone that came around with recording and performance promises had to earn his trust.
Born on a farm near Houston, Mississippi, Booker T. Washington White introduced his younger cousin B.B. King to his first guitar, a Red Stella. He and B.B. King would later share the same stage and reminisce about that experience. Bukka White was introduced as “Master of the National Steel Guitar”. The song he was known mostly for was Aberdeen Blues, and when he played it audiences would go wild as he hit the neck and strings of his guitar with emotional force.
In the 1930’s Bukka was a professional prize fighter in Chicago and a baseball pitcher for the Birmingham Black Cats. At that time during a stay in Memphis he had the opportunity to record 14 songs. The sessions produced two 78s, released to the public with no commercial success. Around that time, he was sent to Parchman Farm for shooting an assailant in the thigh. Before going off to jail he recorded Shake ‘Em on Down which sold 16,000 copies. Unfortunately, Bukka couldn’t feel that song’s full impact while serving behind bars. While there, he recorded two songs with Alan Lomax in 1939 for the Library of Congress. They were Sic ‘Em Dogs On and Po’ Boy.
When Bukka White was released from prison in 1940 he recorded follow-up sessions to Shake ‘Em On Down that resulted in a compilation of powerful tunes reflecting on his prison life, Jim Crow justice, isolation, and the freedom of hobo life on the rails.
In the 1960’s, Bukka White reemerged with the folk revival scene and gained much notoriety. He had a reputation with promoters to be professional, punctual and to the point. He was always the first one on the bus even for a 5 a.m. wake up call, one promoter would later say. Bukka’s presence on stage was the real deal and everybody who came to see him play felt his magnanimous presence. He continued to play live and record until his death in Memphis on Feb 27, 1977.
Aberdeen Blues – Bukka White