Joe Lee "Big Joe" Williams
Oct. 16, 1903 - Dec.18, 1982
by ~ Road Dawg
Born in Crawford in east Mississippi, one hundred miles from the Mississippi Delta, Big Joe was nonetheless a consummate blues performer, firmly in the Delta style. Big Joe spent over sixty years as a wandering blues troubadour, beginning in his youth by roaming the country, playing bars, house parties, work camps and street corners. In the early 1920s, he was a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a traveling revue based in Port Gibson, Mississippi. He arguably had the longest continuous playing career of all pre-WWII bluesmen.
He signed with Bluebird Records in 1935 after being recruited by Lester Melrose. Over the next ten years, he recorded, among others, Baby Please Don’t Go (1935), and Crawlin’ King Snake (1941), tunes that were later covered by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and many others. He also recorded with numerous other bluesmen, such as Sonny Boy Williamson I, Robert Nighthawk and Peetie Wheatstraw. Big Joe introduced the young McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield to the traveling bluesman lifestyle, taking him on wandering trips over north Mississippi.
Joe was around for the blues revival of the early 1960s. Unlike other bluesmen for whom researchers had to comb the south, Big Joe was still making his living with his music at that time. He was firmly established in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village when Bob Dylan arrived on the scene. Joe put Dylan up, took him around and introduced him to the owners of music venues, an act for which Dylan thanks him on the liner notes of one of his earliest albums. Big Joe was included in the European blues tours of the 1960s and toured with Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Sonnyboy Williamson II, Muddy Waters and others. The only existing video of Big Joe performing of which I am aware is on the European-filmed video, The American Folk and Blues Festival 1962-1966 which is reviewed on the VIDEO page of this web site.
Big Joe Williams often played a twelve-string guitar, but is more widely known for playing a guitar that he had modified for nine strings. The story is told of Big Joe, growing tired of a younger relative playing his guitar when he was home, adding a seventh string to thwart the younger player’s efforts. After the fellow learned to play that, Joe added an eighth and eventually a ninth string. Evidently, the ninth string did the trick. He often tuned to variations of open G. He was known to do such things as attach an aluminum pie plate to his amp with a beer can resting against it and suspended by a string to vibrate and create weird tones.
In the 1970’s, Big Joe played private parties, some of which were in the Starkville, Mississippi area, where I had the privilege to meet him and even sit down and play with him. He was notorious for his cantankerous personality but none of that was evident to me during the short period of time that I knew him. Would that I had known then what I know now of the blues. The questions that I would love to have asked him…......
John Lee “Big Joe” Williams is buried on private property outside Crawford, Mississippi.