by Brian Manton
From Fall 2017
Big Joe Williams drank peppermint Schnapps and Gordon’s gin and, when he’d had enough, you likely couldn’t decipher his words to find out why he was so angry with you. He drank from the bottle but poured liquid tension into other peoples’ rooms and stomachs. You’re not leaving ‘til he says so.
Joe was born in Crawford, Mississippi in 1903. He was short but bullish and barrellous enough to still be called Big Joe. He spoke with a thick Piney Woods accent through fewer and fewer teeth as time went on. In his early years he travelled the United Sates as a blues troubadour playing wherever he could – juke joints and brothels, lumber camps and railroads, store fronts and alleyways. Unlike many other bluesmen of the time, Joe never kept a side job. Joe just played and moved on to each next gig. He signed with Bluebird Records in 1935, brought in by talent scout Lester Melrose, and helped establish the small band ‘Bluebird sound’.
In the 1960s, Guitarist Michael Bloomfield travelled with Big Joe, through Illinois and Indiana, Missouri and Mississippi, to be introduced to a cartography of bluesmen – names that mapped the form: Tampa Red, Komoko Arnold, Jazz Gillum, Sonny Boy Williamson, J. B. Lenoir, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Their journeys were sweetened by Joe’s big-hearted sober compassion and soured by that air-raid-siren look in his small eyes once the turn was on him. But when he played… when Big Joe played he had access to this full range. Force applied with beauty. Barely tamed music beaten with shoulder wide fingers. He bullied the strings and sweated the frets. His constant victim, a nine string Silvertone. An extra three strings, moral support for the usual six – each coerced into a custom tuning that prevented others from stealing Joe’s style.
1963, the American Folk Blues Festival. A small wooden stage, smaller with Big Joe’s tree stump presence. A reverent introduction gives way to quiet. The lull is strangled and thrown to the floor by chords under fingertip punches and plucks of precise imprecision. His heel effortlessly taps out the percussion of heavier movements. “Baby please don’t go.” His voice dense and knotted like him. The music seems squeezed from him. Reluctant toothpaste becoming granite sculpture, revealing shapes that were already there.
A thick hand covers the Silvertone’s mouth, quiets her strings to submission. “Before I be your dog.” He grips her neck and retraces the refrain in quieter notes. Big Joe sings please don’t go to mean you go on and run now. The bigheart starts pumping that liquid tension. The words are grimaced and his eyes are small again. A last strum starts angry but ends with that next-morning sober compassion.
In the Encylopedia of the Blues, Gérard Herzhaft writes that Baby Please Don’t Go is “one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history.” I was lead to Big Joe through Van Morrison’s rendition; an airy version without the same menace or heartache. I can’t listen to that any more. It’s cut short every time by a single fingertip punch.