Friday, January 8, 2010

January 8: Robert Pete Willams, "Prisoner's Talking Blues"

Artist: Robert Pete Williams
Song: "Prisoner's Talking Blues"
Album: Angola Prisoner's Blues
Year: 1957 (recorded)/1961 (released)

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Over the decades, the original mood and intent behind blues music has become somewhat diluted, and it is in many ways more about the sound than it is about the content therein. Yet in its earliest days, the blues genre earned its name due to the honest, and usually sorrowful lyrics, and the equally moving way in which the vocalist delivered the words. Perhaps representing the most personal genre of them all, it is the soul-bearing nature of blues music that made it so intriguing, as the words being sung could often be related to by countless others in the audience. Yet due to the fact that a majority of early blues artists came from the "deep South" in the U.S., and there was a general lack of "field" recording equipment in that era, many of the greatest blues artists most likely never got formally recorded. However, the artists that were captured on tape throughout the 1930's, 40's, and 50's represent some of the most extraordinary musicians in history, and there are few as moving and influential as the legendary Robert Pete Williams. A man who, while nowhere near the worlds' best guitar player, made up for his shortcomings with one of the finest voices and some of the most heartbreaking lyrics, Williams is a true icon of blues music, ranking alongside the likes of Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Though there is not one song from Robert Pete Williams that is anything less than stunning, if his "Prisoner's Talking Blues" does not pull on your heartstrings, chances are, you have no heart at all.

While countless artists over the decades have made their name by attempting to give off a mystique due to prison time, few can compete with the true story behind Robert Pete Williams. The song, which is found on the Angola Prisoner's Blues compilation was recorded by a part of musicologists who were doing such recordings at a handful of prisons throughout Louisiana. At the time, Williams was a few years into a life sentence for murder, and act which he claimed was self defense. Regardless of the truth behind the incident, after hearing his stunning songs, the musicologists began to lobby the state for his release, and Williams was paroled in 1958. This in no way changed his sound or style, as he was clearly one of the most humble performers in history, and he stands today as one of the most authentic blues singers ever. On "Prisoner's Talking Blues," one finds the most simple of instrumentation, as the song is nothing more than Williams and a lone acoustic guitar. Due to the early and rather crude recording equipment, the low end of the guitar resonates quite significantly, and in many ways, it is this unbalanced sound that gives the song even more of an organic and authentic tone. Keeping things every simple in the musical sense, it is quite clear that Williams also has a clear understanding that where one does NOT play is just as important as where one is playing. While the music is good enough to make the song legendary, it pales in comparison to the voice and lyrics that come from Williams.

When it comes down to a pure, honest, and untouched voice, there are few in history that are as rich and soulful as that of Robert Pete Williams. In short, the voice of Williams is the absolute essence of true blues mastery. While his voice is capable of beautiful melodic works, as he proved on other songs, on "Prisoner's Talking Blues," Williams gives the ideal example of "how" the blues were created, the simple guitar pattern, overlain with sorrowful, straightforward tales. With his perfectly textured voice, Williams delivers one of the most heartbreaking and mournful lyrics ever composed, as he leaves no question to whether or not he has lived a life worthy of a true blues musician. From laments on his chronic illness, where he sings, "I take a lot of medicine, but it don't do no good..." Williams also makes what is clearly an extremely melancholy admission when he says that he is glad that his mother passed before he went to prison, as her seeing that happen would have surely killed her. Yet he pushes further, when he says, "...but if she were living, I could call on her some time...," clearly showing the sense of loneliness that often crushes prisoners. As if these sentiments were not painful enough, Williams continues with lyrics that would touch even the coldest of hearts, when he simply, yet soulfully states, "...sometimes I feel like I'll never see my little kids anymore...but if I don't ever see them no more, I leave it in the hands of god..." Truth be told, with the unsettling lyrics and his raw, honest voice, "Prisoner's Talking Blues" is a song of such majesty that it must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.

Though he does not have the name recognition similar to that of many of his contemporaries and followers, one would truly be hard pressed to find a more authentic or stirring blues sound then one finds in the songs of Robert Pete Williams. As one of the few performers who lived everything about which he sang, his tales of heartbreak and pain are among the most moving and powerful of any songs in music history. With a voice and sound that was so uniquely phenomenal that it gained him a prison release, that alone should have been enough to make Robert Pete Williams a music legend. Rarely performing with anything beyond a simple acoustic guitar, it is Williams' voice and lyrics that are the feature on nearly every song, and his compositions rank among the finest ever, and his songs have been covered by everyone from Captain Beefheart to Led Zeppelin to The Black Keys. Easily standing not only as one of his finest songs, but one of the greatest songs ever written by anyone, Robert Pete Williams lays his entire soul out for all to see on the truly unsurpassed "Prisoner's Talking Blues." The song is one of the most chilling and harrowing songs ever written, as Williams clearly has experienced more sadness in the forty years he had lived at that time than most people experience in an entire lifetime. The song is absolutely stunning, and the completely raw and straightforward nature make Robert Pete Williams' "Prisoner's Talking Blues" one of the most unique and absolutely phenomenal songs ever recorded.

1 comment:

Weso said...

Prisoner's Talking Blues
Angola State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisians - 1959 (?)
Robert Pete Williams - voice, guitar

Lord, I feel so bad sometime, seems like that I’m weakening every day
You know, I’ve begin to get grey since I got here
Well, a whole lot of worryin’ causin’ that
But I can feel myself weakening
I don’t keep well no more, I keeps sickly
I takes a lot of medicine, but it looks like it don’t do no good
All I have to do is pray, that’s the only thing’ll help me here
One foot in the grave, look like, and the other one out
Sometimes looks like my best day gotta be my last day
Sometimes I feel like I never see my little ol’ kids anymore
But if I don’t never see ‘em no more, leave ‘em in the hands of God
You know, my sister, she’s like a mother to me
She do all in the world that she can
She went all the way along with me in this trouble, ‘til the end
In a way, I was glad my poor mother had ‘ceased because she suffered with heart trouble
And trouble behind me sure woulda went hard with her
But if she were livin’, I could call on her sometime
But my ol’ father dead, too
That’d make me motherless and fatherless
It’s six of us sisters, three boys
Family done got small now, looks like they’re dyin’ out fast
I don’t know, but God been good to us in a way
‘Cause ol’ death have stayed away a long time

Lord, my worry sure carryin’ me down
Lord, my worry sure is carryin’ me down
Sometimes I feel like, baby, committin’ suicide
Yeah, sometimes I feel, feel like committin’ suicide
I got the nerve if I just had anything to do it with
I’m goin’ down slow, somethin’ wrong with me
Yes, I’m goin’down slow, somethin’ wrong with me
I’ve got to make a change while I’m young
If I don’t, I won’t ever get old.