The Baton Rouge Blues Festival, brought to you by the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation, is this weekend on Saturday, April 12. In the spirit of prepping yourself for some homegrown blues, I have a special Baton Rouge blues story for you. Wanna hear it? Here it goes.
Robert Pete Williams was born in March 1914, into a family of sharecroppers on a man named Anderson’s farm in Zachary, which, as you likely know, is only about 15 minutes away from Baton Rouge, barring an accident on I-110 or any stray cattle in the road. One of nine children, he had no formal schooling but grew up harvesting sugar cane, as well as picking cotton: a job so notoriously vile that Americans finally built a machine to do it and now only resentfully pluck it from the tops of their aspirin bottles. It was a back-breaking life that left your hands cut, scarred, and calloused, much like serious guitar playing can do. It truly was a tough life worthy of any true bluesman.
Today, the blues, a uniquely American genre, is widely believed to have begun in the cotton fields of the agricultural South, as a field holler, a variation of the work song, but inspired by African-American spiritual music. In turn, the blues inspired field hollers, but eventually the blues snaked out into many genres, which are usually noted and named for the places where they either began or were most popular, such as the Delta or Chicago.
Without even having a PlayStation, Williams learned to play the guitar well.
Williams moved to Baton Rouge just before the Depression, when he was 14, and took work in a lumberyard. At 20, he made his own first guitar from copper wire and an old cigar box. Around 1935, Williams met a white woman whom a friend worked for, and she agreed to sell him her son’s $65 guitar, which the boy adamantly refused to play, for $4.50.
Under the tutelage of locals Frank and Robert Metty, and without even having a PlayStation, Williams learned to play the guitar well, drawing inspiration from great bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose records were big sellers at the time. He took gigs playing at churches, fish fries, and dances – wherever he could – all the while supporting himself and his family in various jobs in farming and in lumberyards.
In 1954, Williams’ life would just get bluesier, unfortunately. According to his telling, he was accosted by a stranger in a Scotlandville lounge, a man who, in so many words, told him he was going to severely dampen any plans he had to live much longer. To add insult to injury, he called Williams a “son of a bitch,” and tried to stab him as two other men blocked the barroom door.
Williams, who matter-of-factly states that no one in this time traveled without a weapon, pulled a gun on his would-be assassin and shot him once in the gut. The man later died of his wounds.
Williams claimed self-defense, but in 1956, well into his second marriage and with a family to tend to, he was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Angola Penitentiary. He was 42 years old.
Little did he know, though, that the course of his life would change again, and very shortly. In 1958, two ethnomusicologists, Dr. Harry Oster and Richard Allen, visited Angola as part of their studies of spirituals and the blues. The warden, knowing Williams could play and sing, arranged for Oster and Allen to meet with him, along with fellow prisoners and musicians Roosevelt Charles, Matthew “Hogman” Maxey, and Robert “Guitar” Welch.
To say that Oster and Allen were blown away by Williams’ talent would be a gross understatement. They immediately set to recording what eventually would be released as “Robert Pete Williams, Vol. 1 & 2,” and shortly after began lobbying for Williams’ release, a cause that went national and was profiled by Time magazine in 1959.
Due mainly to Oster’s efforts, and after 2.5 years served on a life sentence, Louisiana Governor Earl Long pardoned Williams in December 1959, but the pardon came with a catch: He was sent by the Parole Board into servitude labor, which required the parolee to work 80 hours a week, which pretty much seems a violation of the 13th Amendment. And he was forbidden to travel or receive compensation.
He was unable to play much, as 80-hour workweeks seriously cut in on one’s jam sessions.
So it was from 1959 to 1964 that Williams set about completing the conditions of his parole. A farmer in Denham Springs, having heard Williams’ music and being moved by his plight, took him on. In this time, he was unable to play much, as 80-hour workweeks seriously cut in on one’s jam sessions, though he occasionally played in friends’ homes.
In 1964, finally given a full pardon from the state of Louisiana, and just in time to see his music begin to gain popularity, Williams was able to accept a slot playing in the famous Newport Folk Music Festival in Rhode Island, just before it was overrun by hippies. In 1965, he toured the States; in 1966, Europe. By 1968, though, he had moved to Maringouin and again went back to having a “day job,” as his sad, mournful style had never quite been the upbeat kind preferred on the festival circuit. The blues are extra sad to hear whilst tripping on acid.
Toward the end of his life in the 1970s, Williams was forced to feed himself and his family by collecting and selling scrap metal: an honest job, but nonetheless not the one his talent would reflect. He wrote a song about it though, “Scrap Iron Blues.” Give it a listen. It’s excellent.