Robert Pete Williams

by Keith Purtell

Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams

The story of 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 bluesman there 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. However, his style was so idiosyncratic that blues crowds and other bluesmen didn’t fully accept him. That’s a real shame, because the man was an authentic genius. Like many visionary artists, he sacrificed much popularity to follow his talent.

Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams

Williams’ playing doesn’t sound anything like funky, crowd-pleasing John Lee Hooker, although the two do share a similar 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.

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 voice. 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 wasn’t what Saturday night crowds at bars and music festivals were looking for; Williams barely earned enough money to support himself.

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.

It’s a crime that blues books and discographies still neglect Robert Pete Williams. Even today, blues fans and the blues establishment have not seen fit to give this man the respect he deserves. Blues seems caught between young white audiences that expect something sexy and braggadocious and young black audiences that appear to be embarrassed by a music form popular with their grandparents. 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:




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.