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Robert Pete Williams

There is a scarceness of authentic Blues artists who transcend the music and become the very essence of what they are conveying. They 'ARE' the Blues in its primordial form,beyond the field hollers and arhoolies, to the African griots, at its original source. One such individual was Robert Pete Williams, bluesman.

From a Prison Cell to the Avant-Garde By Milo Miles

Although Robert Pete Williams died in 1980 at the age of 66, he arguably remains the most avant-garde blues performer ever recorded. Few have approached his ability to evoke the torment of life in prison or bend language to cast an eerie spell over a chance encounter with a seductive woman. Williams could improvise precise, topical blues numbers with remarkable spontaneity. He had never been recorded when he was discovered in Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, convicted of murder. Like the country blues titan Leadbelly, Williams even sang his way to freedom.

Yet he was no more than a moderate success on the folk-revival circuit in the 1960s, and the very density and originality of his blues must have been part of the reason. Today he is a shadowy memory, unknown outside blues circles. The release of Williams's prison recordings in 1959 caused a sensation with an earlier generation of fans.

Blues revivals come and go, but too many of today's younger performers walk through the blues with a vocabulary limited to an ever-shrinking series of overused themes and guitar licks. Compared with such performances, Williams's blues comes as a draught of straight whisky after sips of warm soda. In particular, each of the field recordings made by the folklorist Dr. Harry Oster while Williams was still an inmate is gripping testimony. The first shock is the peculiar form of these blues. Williams repeats the first line at the beginning of each verse but boldly disregards the rest of routine blues structure.

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Robert Pete Williams

Fat Possum Records
2001

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When A Man Takes the...

Arhoolie Records
1994

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