Blues Bytes


February 2023

Big Joe Williams
The Original Ramblin' Bluesman, 1945-1961
Jasmine Records

Big Joe Williams

Big Joe Williams was truly an original, one of the most creative and influential of the Delta blues guitarists of his era, or any era. He developed a nine-string guitar, on which he placed numerous attachments to enhance the already unique sound, and he wandered around the United States during the ’20s and ’30s, playing in stores, bars, alleys, house parties, work camps, and street corners. He also worked in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930

He began his own recording career in 1935 for Bluebird Records, also recording with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, and Henry Townsend. It was with Bluebird that Williams first recorded what became his best-known songs, “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” both of which were recorded, and continue to be recorded by numerous other artists.

His tenure with Bluebird ended in 1945, but he continued to record for other record labels, such as the obscure Chicago label, the major label Columbia, Bullet Records, Trumpet, Specialty, and others. This portion of Williams’ recording career is collected in Jasmine Records’ Big Joe Williams: The Original Ramblin’ Bluesman, 1945-1961, collecting 53 of his songs from the 15-year period, including a few previously unissued tracks. In addition to the labels mentioned above, this set also includes tracks recorded for Prestige, Vocalion, Vee-Jay, Top Rank, and Folkways.

Williams’ influence on other blues artists is obvious after hearing these sides. Of course, Muddy Waters recorded “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and was heavily influenced by Williams. “Mama Don’t Allow Me” served as an influence for John Lee Hooker’s rhythm and lyrics for “Boogie Chillen,” and “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” held a prominent place in Honeyboy Edwards’ repertoire, while “Sloppy Drunk” was recorded several times by Jimmy Rogers.

There are multiple versions of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” present: a 1945 version from Columbia, a previously unreleased version from 1952 on Specialty, and a late ’50s version unreleased from Cobra. Many of the songs, or at least parts of them, can be heard from artists’ recordings of the era.

There are also eight songs from 1957 that Williams recorded with Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer for Cobra Records. Previously released on EP for London’s Collector Records in 1960, this is their first release on CD. Eight other tracks recorded with Helfer were later released on Delmark Records.

He would go on to record additional material for Delmark Records, as well as Arhoolie, Spivey Records (with Bob Dylan), Verve Records, and L&R Records from Germany, who recorded Williams in his native Crawford, Mississippi in 1980.

Williams died in 1982, probably not really aware of how far his influence spanned, not just in the States but also numerous musicians overseas such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, and Eric Clapton. The Original Ramblin’ Bluesman, 1945-1961 captures a significant portion of this very prolific artist’s career.

--- Graham Clarke



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