Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bill Williams - the best songster you never heard of

Bill Williams (1897-1973)would be a more familiar name today if not for his late start at making records and noted reluctance for performing anywhere other than at informal gatherings. Going by his repertory, it would be inaccurate to describe Williams as a bluesman; referring to him as a songster would be far more appropriate since he played folk, ragtime, gospel, hillbilly, pop, and blues with equal skill and passion. His diverse songbook and guitar chops left the Richmond, Virginia native sounding like an East Coast equivalent to Mississippi John Hurt, making it a pity that he did not live longer and record more extensively. Williams apparently never had any aspirations to become a professional musician and was content to use his talent as both a pastime and a way to entertain friends. During his younger days, he worked at a number of professions, including waterboy, miner, and cook while spending time in Delaware, Colorado, and Tennessee. Ultimately, he settled in tiny Greenup, Kentucky in 1922, where he resided for the remainder of his life. Although associates and neighbors were well aware of Williams's musical abilities, the remote area where the guitarist made his home allowed him to exist in, as blues historian Stephen Calt puts it, "contended oblivion" essentially throughout the 1950s-1960s blues revival. It was only after a local guitar instructor contacted Yazoo-Blue Goose head honcho Nick Perls in 1970 that this extremely impressive songster discovery became properly recognized as the "most technically accomplished living" musician of his kind!Evidently, Williams was his own toughest critic in regard to his musical abilities and was incredulous that anyone would have interest in recordings of his music. As Low and Lonesome and Blues, Rags and Ballads (with the latter being the better-sounding rip of the two) readily make clear, he was being way too hard on himself since both albums show his guitar-playing skills and earthy singing voice to be remarkably well-preserved. The instrumentalist with which Williams is most often compared is Blind Blake, and the two allegedly spent time playing together while they both briefly lived in Bristol, Tennessee during the early 1920s.While the most familiar species of bluesman shamelessly exaggerates his musical feats before anyone gullible enough to listen, the unassuming Bill Williams is horrified by even favorable notoriety. His satisfaction from the placid virtues of solid citizenship (he is a Kentucky Colonel and an election supervisor) and rugged self-sufficiency (he built his own home and raises much of his own food) than his unsolicited position as the blues'most exciting "find" in a long time.