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Bill Williams: A Kentucky Songster

A profile and archival audio of Bill Williams of Greenup, Kentucky. Bill was a retired railroad worker who performed for all walks of the local society for nearly 50 years. by John H. Bondurant

Fraley Family Festival, August 1973

By the time Bill Williams died in early October of 1973, he had been "discovered" after performing for over 60 years of his life, more than 50 of those years in his adopted hometown of Greenup, Kentucky. Bill had reluctantly recorded two albums for the Blue Goose label (the 2nd LP issued posthumously) and had performed on the folk festival circuit, traveling to Chicago, Washington, Montreal, and New York.

In August of 1973 Bill returned to the Fraley Family Reunion and Folk Festival at nearby Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky. J.P. and Annadeene Fraley were longtime friends of Bill, and their festival was an extension of the American Folk Song Festival founded in Ashland, Kentucky by "The Traipsin' Woman" Jean Bell Thomas.

Williams had first come to greater public attention following his appearance at the 1970 Mountain Heritage Folk Festival, also put on by the Fraleys, in Greenup, Kentucky. Bill's performance was greeted with a standing ovation, to which he responded in true songster form by playing an impromptu version of "The Star Spangled Banner," one of his favorites. Following what was surely a whirlwind of activity for the next three years, Williams was returning home to his old stomping grounds to play as just one of the local boys. By this time Bill was in his mid-70s and increasingly reluctant to perform in public. A dozen years have passed since the earliest recordings by Leonard Roberts, and a certain degree of deftness has left Bill Williams' fingers, but his performance is still very entertaining. The reperatoire is still varied, with blues, pop songs, old time fiddle tunes, and even a fox chase thrown in. Local harmonica wiz John Lozier joins Williams for three pieces before Bill closes the set with "Frankie and Johnny" and "Worried Blues." This is most likely the last public performance of Bill Williams; he passed away 6 October 1973 in Greenup, Kentucky.

Williams begins the set with his rendition of the blues standard "Ain't Nobody's Business" by Everett Robbins and Kentucky-born Porter Grainger. This tune was identified mostly with classic blues women such as Bessie Smith and Sara Martin. Bill Williams fingerpicked country blues style is very similar to that of Memphis' Frank Stokes.

Nowhere is the breadth of Williams' repertoire more evident than Leon Payne's 1949 Country and Western hit "I Love You Because." Also a hit for Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, and Jim Reeves, it is a clear nod to the popular tastes of his white Greenup neighbors. It also serves as evidence that Williams sought to free himself from only playing the blues.

"Yankee Doodle" is credited by Williams as the very first song he ever learned from his school days. Here he demonstrates how he first picked out the melody, then he shifts gears into a wonderfully syncopated ragtime arrangement that brings cheers from the audience.

A susceptibility to unabashedly sentimental songs is shown in Williams' rendition of "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," the Carter Family classic. This was surely another favorite of his predominantly white audiences.

"Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon" is a typical minstrel tune of the songster tradition that crossed the color line from Frank Stokes to Clayton McMichen. Not even an errant siren can phase Bill's clean picking and singing of "The Chicken."

John Lozier of South Portsmouth, Kentucky joins Bill on harmonica to play the old time fiddle tune "Billy in the Low Ground." This is just one of a number of fiddle tunes Williams transposed to guitar or accompanied when playing square dances.

Williams and Lozier continue with "Slippin' Around," Floyd Tillman's 1949 country classic of infidelity.

"Fox Chase" proves to be more of a showcase for Lozier, but Williams shows his rhythmic comping skills in following the harmonica and hounds.

Asked by festival emcee, John Skaggs, to play a couple more for the TV folks (unfortunately no known footage exists), Bill Williams responds with "Frankie and Johnny" for the appreciative audience. The song ends with Williams' trademark fingerstyle guitar playing.

Bill Williams brings the set to a close with his "Worried Blues." When asked for one more tune, Williams replies that he'll play "his blues." In more of the bluesman than songster tradition, Williams' malleable lyrics bear little resemblance to the standard version by Big Maceo and Lead Belly. While atypical of the wide-ranging repertoire of Bill Williams' long career, it is fitting that he close this final set with a blues form that shows the roots of his musical style.