Robert Pete Williams - Biography
By J Poet
Robert Pete Williams was one of the most unique bluesmen to be discovered during the blues revival of the late 60s. His music had a distinctly African feel marked by driving rhythms, long, shimmering lead lines, and odd time signatures coupled with unrhymed lyrics. His guitar follows his vocal lines, forsaking strict time signatures to produce irregular, but compelling narratives. When folklorist and producer Harry Oster met him at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana in 1958, he’d never made a professional recording, nor had he ever played the blues as a vocation. Like Lead Belly, he sang himself out of jail, and with Oster’s help, was discovered by folk and blues fans. His rough, idiosyncratic style kept him from becoming as popular as other blues artists, but the few recordings he left behind include some of the most chilling accounts of prison life and hard times ever recorded.
Williams was born in Zachary, Louisiana in 1914. Little is known about his personal life. He played guitar as a young man, but worked as a sharecropper like his parents. He was serving a life sentence for murder – he claimed he’d killed in self-defense – when Harry Oster visited Angola State Prison to record blues and prison songs in 1958. Oster was impressed by Williams and recorded the material later released as Angola Prisoner's Blues (1961 Arhoolie), Robert Pete Williams, Vol. 1 also released as I’m as Blue as a Man Can Be (1994 Arhoolie), Robert Pete Williams, Vol. 2 (1994 Arhoolie), and When a Man Takes the Blues (1959 Folk Lyric, 1994 Arhoolie). Poor Bob’s Blues (2004 Arhoolie) is a compilation of his best work and covers recordings made by Oster as well as later songs from the late 70s.
The prison songs Williams cut are so intense they’re hard to listen to, full of anger, rage and despair. Oster was so impressed he helped Williams get a pardon. When Williams was released, in 1959, he was forbidden to travel outside Louisiana, but he made several more albums that made him well known to blues fans. Free Again (1961 Prestige Bluesville, 2007 Prestige Original Blues Classics) details his life on parole with stark, sparse songs full of death, dejection and futility. Williams probably suffered from depression and his music captures the hopeless feelings of a lost soul with a chilling power. He played dates in Louisiana and had his national debut after his parole was over at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Three of those performances are on Newport Folk Festival: Best of the Blues 1959-1968 (Vanguard 2001).
Williams played the folk and blues festival circuit and toured the US and Europe, but he was a moody man, and vanished for long periods of time between sessions. His albums include Louisiana Blues (1967 Takoma) Robert Pete Williams (1971 Ahura Mazda, 1991 Fat Possum), Blues Masters (1972 Storyville, 1991 Storyville), When I Lay My Burden Down (1974 Southland), Robert Pete Williams: The Legacy of the Blues Vol. 9 (1973 Sonnet, 1992 GMP Crescendo) Il Blues di Robert Pete Williams (1978 Dischi della Quercia Italy), Santa Fe Blues (1980 Paris, 1996 EPM Musique) and Sugar Farm (1981 Blues Beacon Germany). His health started failing in the late 70s and he died of a heart attack on December 31, 1980.