Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams was a rare blues man with a stereotypical background. He was born on 14th March 1914 in Zachary Louisiana. The son of a sharecropper Williams never went to school, he worked in the fields to help provide for the family. It was not until he was in his late teens that Williams began playing blues music. Again, like the typical blues man his first guitar was made out of a cigar box.

When he was married he played at local parties and dances to make some extra money. However, although he was also working during the day he never made enough to support his family. This was a source of some matrimonial disharmony. On at least one occasion his wife destroyed his guitar. Despite the tension at home he continued to play throughout the Baton Rouge area at parties, juke joints, and fish fries, all the while developing his unique style. In 1956 he was convicted of murdering a man in a local club, although he always maintained that he shot the other man in self-defence. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola Jail, where Leadbelly had served his time when he was convicted of murder some years before. While in jail Williams continued to play, sing, and write songs.

One song that was written about his time in jail was called ‘Pardon Denied Again’ and was recorded in either 1959 or 1960 and is available on ‘Robert Pete Williams Vol. 1 – I’m Blue as a man can be’ (Arhoolie CD 394). It is a painfully direct meditation on his situation.

Pardon Denied Blues

Lord I got myself on the pardon board

You know I got denied again

Been on the board three times

Each time I was denied

But I hope in the Good Lord

Lord have mercy on me

They tellin’ me the Governor was on the board

All around the board looking at them Peter’s case

Lord they must have passed mine around and

Because they denied me again

Lord have mercy on me

Lord have mercy on me

I’ve been tryin’, I’ve been tryin’, Lord every day of my life

Please Lord have mercy on me

Says I worried, then I worried

They would give me some kind of chance

Please please Lord give ‘em hearts (?) the people round the pardon board

And Lord let ‘em feel my sorry too

Lord have mercy on me

Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…

I fell down on my knee

I prayed, I prayed both night and day

Hoping they would help me Lord

Oh Lord have mercy on my dying soul

Oh Lord Oh Lord

Well I know my cases ain’t too bad Lord

I just can’t see, just can’t see why they did me this way

Lord have mercy on my dying soul

I got, I got a big family on my hands

They’s out there in that free world waiting on me to reappear

Oh Lord they want me to return again back to my home

Oh Lord have mercy on me

I got a man told me that he would write

Now a letter to the Governor for me

And I hope he would help me Lord

Praying to the Lord he hear my prayer

I wish that Governor would take sides with me

Oh Lord have mercy on me

This all I got to say

To you today

Please help me Lord

In the name of God

Like Leadbelly, Williams was discovered while serving his sentence. He was discovered and recorded by musicologists Dr Harry Oster and Richard Allen. Realising the importance and uniqueness of Williams’ work they petitioned for his release. He was released in 1959 but was unable to work outside of Louisiana for the next 5 years under the terms of the pardon during which time he had several records released on the Folk-Lyric, Prestige and Arhoolie labels. His recordings were received with enthusiasm and after the 5 years were up he ventured further afield to sing to his growing band of followers. He played the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. In 1966 he toured Europe, including England, although he was refused entry back into England in 1970, due to his prison record! He continued working and touring for a number of years.

Williams reduced his workload during the late 1970s owing to his age and declining health. He died on 31st December 1980.

What makes Robert Pete Williams’ unique? What sets him apart from the others? It certainly is not the toughness of his life. The stories of the hard times and persecution of blues singers, and blacks in general in the States, at that time abound. What sets Williams’ apart are his lyrics and music. His music has an African sound and his music has been compared to Ali Farka Toure’s the Malian guitarist. He shares a stylistic approach with John Lee Hooker. A song could stay within one chord with a fluid accompliment that draws the listener in. His songs were often improvised and reflected the old holler style blues. His songs were often unrhymed with no distinct metric pattern. His dark fluid voice, direct powerful lyrical imagery combined with powerful, furious riffs created his unique and mesmerising sound.

As Elijah Wald of Blues Wire wrote. “Other blues musicians created wonderful bodies of work: Robert Pete Williams created a whole musical world”

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply