Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams, b. March 14, 1914 in Zachary, LA, d. December 31, 1980 in Rosedale, LA, Louisiana blues musician, active 1950s - 1970s. Although he had been playing and singing blues since he was a young man, Williams first came to wider notice when he was recorded in 1958 by folklorist Harry Oster. At the time, Williams was serving a sentence for murder at the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. His sombre vocals and gentle, understated guitar accompaniments were impressive in themselves, but more significant was his unique ability to sing long, partially extemporized songs, sometimes based around a traditional formula, sometimes remarkably original and intensely personal. This exposure led to his being taken up by a younger audience, and on his release from prison he made many appearances at concerts and festivals in the USA and overseas. He also made many more records, most of which testify to his great creative imagination and artistry.

Williams was born in Zachary, Louisiana, to a family of sharecroppers. He had no formal schooling, and spent his childhood picking cotton and cutting sugar cane. In 1928, he moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and worked in a lumberyard. At the age of 20, Williams fashioned a crude guitar by attaching five copper strings to a cigar box, and soon after bought a cheap, mass-produced one. Williams was taught by Frank and Robert Metty, and was at first chiefly influenced by Peetie Wheatstraw and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He began to play for small events such as Church gatherings, fish fries, suppers, and dances. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Williams played music and continued to work in the lumberyards of Baton Rouge. He was discovered by ethnomusicologists Dr Harry Oster and Richard Allen in Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he was serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a man in a nightclub in 1956, an act which he claimed was in self-defense. Oster and Allen recorded Williams performing several of his songs about prison life, and pleaded for him to be pardoned. Under pressure from Oster, the parole board issued a pardon, and commuted his sentence to 12 years. In December 1958, he was released into 'servitude parole', which required 80 hours of labor per week on a Denham Springs farm without due compensation, and only room and board provided. This parole prevented him from working in music, though he was able to occasionally play with Butch Cage and Willie B. Thomas at Thomas's home in Zachary. By this time, Williams' music was becoming popular, and he played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. By 1965, he was able to tour the country, traveling to Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Chicago and Berkeley, California. In 1966 he also toured Europe. In 1968 he settled in Maringouin, west of Baton Rouge and began to work outside of music. In 1970, Williams began to perform once again, touring blues and folk festivals throughout the United States and Europe. His music has appeared in several films notably, the Roots of American Music; Country and Urban Music (1971); Out of the Blacks into the Blues (1972) and Blues Under the Skin (1972) the last two being French-made films. His most popular recordings included "Prisoner's Talking Blues" and "Pardon Denied Again". Williams has been inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame. In 2014, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Williams reduced his activities by the late 1970s, and died in Rosedale, Louisiana on December 31, 1980.


Robert Pete Williams Biography by Cub Koda

Discovered in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Robert Pete Williams became one of the great blues discoveries during the folk boom of the early '60s. His disregard for conventional patterns, tunings, and structures kept him from a wider audience, but his music remains one of the great, intense treats of the blues.

Williams was born in Zachary, Louisiana, the son of sharecropping parents. As a child, he worked the fields with his family and never attended school. Williams didn't begin playing blues until his late teens, when he made himself a guitar out of a cigar box. Playing his homemade guitar, Williams began performing at local parties, dances, and fish fries at night while he worked during the day. Even though he was constantly working, he never made quite enough money to support his family, which caused considerable tension between him and his wife; according to legend, she burned his guitar one night in a fit of anger.

Despite all of the domestic tension, Williams continued to play throughout the Baton Rouge area, performing at dances and juke joints. In 1956, he shot and killed a man in a local club. Williams claimed he acted in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola, where he served two years before being discovered by ethnomusicologists Dr. Harry Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison. Impressed with the guitarist's talents, Oster and Allen pleaded for a pardon for Williams. The pardon was granted in 1959, after he had served a total of three and a half years. For the first five years after he left prison, Williams could only perform in Louisiana, but his recordings -- which appeared on Folk-Lyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels -- were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews.

In 1964, Williams played his first concert outside of Louisiana, at the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Williams' performance was enthusiastically received and he began touring the United States, often playing shows with Mississippi Fred McDowell. For the remainder of the '60s and most of the '70s, Robert Pete Williams constantly played concerts and festivals across America, as well a handful of dates in Europe. Along the way, he recorded for a handful of small independent labels, including Fontana and Storyville. Williams slowed down his work schedule in the late '70s, largely due to declining health. The guitarist died on December 31, 1980, at the age of 66.