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King of the Nine String

I think I was in my first year of university when I came across the music of Big Joe Williams for the first time. This is Big Joe Williams, the so-called king of the 9-string guitar I’m talking about, not the other fabulous Joe Williams who sang for the Basie band. I had started studying Fine Arts at York University at that time. There was a pretty good library at the University and I started spending study time in there. I soon discovered they had a listening room which gave students access to a truly fabulous collection of 33rpm blues recordings. The room was made up of many little cubbies, each equipped with turntable.

I don’t remember how they indexed the collection but I think there was a counter or a window and there you could request anything they had. Out would come the record you wanted to hear and a set of headphones. I began doing much of my studying in the listening room, where I discovered a world of fairly obscure blues material, which I loved so much. That included Big Joe Williams. The first song I heard by him was Sloppy Drunk Blues, with the first Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica. It stopped me in my tracks.

Here’s Ry Cooder talking about his first experience hearing Sloppy Drunk Blues by Big Joe Williams.

Mr. Williams doubled up 3 of the strings on his guitar, creating a very percussive 9-stringed instrument of which he was the king (and only practitioner).

On occasions when I hear Big Joe Williams music these days, I still love it, though for the most part, I listen to fiddle music these days. When I stumbled across the Ry Cooder video, it brought back a flood of memories of my university days, when I spent hours in that listening room lost in another time and place.

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