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”)