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Robert Pete Williams heard songs in the wind

(Louisiana bluesman, 1914-1980)

by Keith Purtell

blues guitarist Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams

The story of bluesman Robert Pete Williams should strike fear in the heart of anyone who cares about our nation’s musical heritage.

Any representative record of his irreplaceable talent was almost lost. Unknown outside central Louisiana, Williams was discovered in 1959 by Dr. Harry Oster while serving a life term in prison.

Williams had been unable to convince a white court that he acted in self-defense when he killed a man during a fight.

Oster recorded the artist at Angola State Penitentiary. In the background on the resulting CD, “I’m Blue as a Man Can Be,” you can hear an accompaniment of bird songs and the lonesome howl of a train whistle carried to the microphone by a Southern breeze.

It’s somewhat eerie considering how Williams described his inspiration at age 28 to change his music style:

“The sound of the atmosphere; the weather changed my style. But I could hear, since being an air-music man. The air came in different, with a different sound of music. Well, the atmosphere, when the wind is blowing, carries music along.”


Oster also helped Williams win a parole from prison, which ultimately led to Williams’ music career. His guitar and singing style was very unique, to the delight of music fans. Like many visionary artists, he risked sacrificing some popularity to follow his authentic talent.

Robert Pete Williams guitar style varied a great deal, and it's a good example of what can be done with an acoustic instrument. His improvised rhythmic style delivered both secular and spiritual music.

Williams’ guitar playing doesn’t sound anything like funky, crowd-pleasing John Lee Hooker, although the two do share an apparent disregard for conventional song structure. Williams’ bass notes are often drones, and his general concept of how the guitar should be played seems to vary from some ancient African tradition to something many years ahead of his time.

Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams

On a 12-string guitar in particular, Williams achieves a distinctive wall of sound; a complex emotional effect evoked by his peculiar harmonic ideas, unpredictable rhythm and plaintive singing. The sound comes at you from several directions, which is unusual considering the intimate persona—the small voice—of one man and one acoustic guitar. Whatever emotional response he got from his listeners, it may not have been what many Saturday night crowds at bars and music festivals were looking for. I have the impression that Williams struggled with financial problems.

Robert Pete Williams live performances show up in several YouTube videos:, in addition to material available on CD/vinyl.

That’s not to say that all of Williams’ recordings were completely outside the mainstream. Much of the CD “Free Again,” for example, is very much a part of popular conventions, although delivered to the listener with an unusual mastery. The fact that his performance seems to vary from raw to sublime only lends to the sense of an artist in command of his medium.

Fans of Captain Beefheart and The Black Keys have enjoyed hearing those artists perform "Grown So Ugly"; Williams's lament about the trauma of several years in prison. Hear his original at "Grown So Ugly" on YouTube.

“I left Angola
1964
Go walking down my street
Knock on my baby's door
My baby come out
She asks me who I am
And I say, honey
Don't you know your man?
She said My man's been gone
Since 1942
And I'll tell you Mr. Ugly,
He didn't look like you”
—Robert Pete Williams

It seems like a crime that blues books and discographies neglect Robert Pete Williams. Speaking for myself, I’m not convinced the blues establishment has given this man full respect. Blues fans in general sometimes seem hung up on the idea that good blues is braggadocious. At least in his own mind, Williams saw his music not as a response to public whim, but whatever the Creator sent him on the wind.

Sample ("Louise"):




NEW LINK: An illustrated discography of Mr. Williams’s life work—an enormous amount of work by Stefan Wirz— is online at www.wirz.de.

Recommended: “Vol. 1 - I’m Blue As A Man Can Be”, “Vol. 2 - When A Man Takes The Blues”, and “Free Again.”

Purchase site (new window): Robert Pete Williams.


Robert Pete Williams; bluesman, guitarist, singer
Robert Pete Williams; bluesman, guitarist, singer