Joe Lee “Big Joe” Williams was born in the small town of Crawford, Mississippi, in western Lowndes County, on 16 October 1903, the same year W. C. Handy reported waking up at a train station in Tutwiler to what he called the weirdest music he had ever heard. Williams reportedly built his first guitar at age five, began playing and writing blues in his teens, and joined the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels featuring Ethel Waters in the 1920s. He is most famous for later modifying a series of inexpensive six-string acoustic guitars by rigging them with electric pickups held on by duct tape, drilling three holes in the top of the three-tuning-keys-per-side headstocks he preferred, drilling three more holes in the bridge, and adding strings to the first, second, and fourth strings. He often used a capo on the first or second fret to create his unique tuning.
In the iconic tradition of the itinerant bluesman, Williams traveled any way he could—by bus, train, or car or on foot. He did play big-time gigs—some in later life with Michael Bloomfield, who said that unlike other older bluesmen who held day jobs, Williams “played and traveled, and that was it.” He also was known to drink and to fight. He was fond of showing up to play at venues where he was not booked. His career was not resuscitated by the blues revival of the 1960s because he had never quit, whether the times provided an audience or he had to create one for himself.
He began recording with Delmark in 1935. After ten years there he moved to OKeh Records. He also recorded with Bluebird, Prestige, and Vocalion, but some his best work may have been captured on Tough Times (Arhoolie, 1960) and on Going Back to Crawford (1971), which Williams produced himself and which featured some of his friends, neighbors, and relations.
Williams died in Macon, Mississippi, on 17 December 1982, leaving a legacy of topical songs such as “President Roosevelt,” “Army Man in Vietnam,” and “Death of Martin Luther King” along with such heavily covered classics as “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Crawlin’ King Snake.”
- Big Joe—One More Time (film, 1983); Michael Bloomfield with S. Summerville, Me and Big Joe (1980)
- Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, eds., All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues (2003)
- Gerard Herzhaft, Encyclopedia of the Blues (1997); Paul Oliver, Aspects of the Blues Tradition (1970)
- Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning: The Meaning of the Blues (1960)