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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

1961 Orin Nelson Recordings

It was long thought that the only existing recordings of Bill Williams (1897-1973) prior to his 1970 debut "Low and Lonesome" (Blue Goose BG-2004) was a demo tape made by local Greenup, Kentucky guitar teacher Charlie Parsons. However in the summer of 1961 Greenup County musician Orin Nelson recorded an interview and performances by Bill Williams at his home in Greenup, Kentucky (LR-OR-082-001-B, Leonard Ward Roberts Collection, SAA 57). Nelson introduces Williams as “an old friend of mine I’ve known for many years,” which appears to be the case, given the relaxed and congenial nature of the recording, and the lighthearted banter between the two men.

The fingerpicking prowess of Bill Williams is evident throughout these performances. Tempos are bright and quick with no loss of melodic clarity. Williams is clearly in his musical prime here, and ready to play anything that Orin Nelson puts forth. The repertoire leans more to the folk and old time standards than the blues that characterized his later commercial records. This may be due to the influence of Nelson, who seems to call out the various tunes (perhaps from a list?) for Williams to perform. It would be almost 10 years before Bill Williams would be recorded again.

 Orin Nelson's introduction of Bill Williams starts the session. Bill Williams has retired by this time, but states that he has been actively entertaining for the past "fifteen years or so" in Greenup.

Williams starts off with Will S. Hays' song "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane." This appears to be one of the earliest songs learned by Williams, as he states that , "I used to sing this way back when, before I ever came to this country [Kentucky] mother, she liked it so well." This clearly establishes the19th century, pre-blues songster tradition for Williams.

 Orin Nelson asks Bill Williams to begin his next selection, "Frankie and Johnny," with a bit of instrumental playing before singing. This is the first real indication of Williams' refined fingerpicking guitar style. Lyrically, Williams use of the "Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts" and "Nellie Bly" reference dates this to the 1912 version of the popular song published by the Leighton Brothers.

"Wreck of the Old 97" appeals to Williams' railroading career and Virginia roots. But the inclusion of the popular ballad also signals a shift in his repertoire to what many consider early country music.

Bill Williams transposed a number of fiddle tunes to guitar such as "Old Joe Clark." These fingerpicked arrangements are unique to Williams, and indicative of the guitar style he likely employed while accompanying community square dances with local fiddle and banjo players.

Williams' inclusion of "John Henry" in his repertoire seems right in line with his African American heritage and railroading career, but it was also an extremely popular and "real old timer that's been played throughout the mountains for years and years," according to Orin Nelson's description. The musical introduction is another example of Bill Williams' fingerpicking expertise. The syncopation of the guitar during the sung verses belies the ragtime roots of Williams' playing.

"The Death of Marion Parker" harkens back to the classic style of Appalachian murder ballads, although it is actually about a gruesome 1927 event from Los Angeles, California. This is just one of the popular "news ballads" written by prolific Georgia songwriter Andrew Jenkins. Jenkins also wrote "The Death of Floyd Collins" and the gospel standard "God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud."

The mass popularity of "news ballads" such as "The Death of Floyd Collins" (called by Williams here "The Fate of Floyd Collins") lasted only a year or so in the mid-1920s. However the form was visited again and again by country and folk artists ranging from Jimmie Rodgers to Bob Dylan.

"It's a Long Way to Tipperary" is a British music hall song that became popular during the First World War. Williams likely learned this song from his brother James, who strummed rather than picked his instrument. Bill then switches to his syncopated fingerpicking style at the verse after stating, "Now here's what...what sounds the best!" This piece is also a prime example of what Bill Williams called "patriotics," referring to any of the predominantly white popular standards that he regularly performed.

"Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" is described as a "sort of a breakdown, fast number" by Orin Nelson. Made popular in old time and country circles by Charlie Poole and later Flatt and Scruggs, its origins are in the Piedmont style blues of Williams' youth.

 Orin Nelson joins Williams on "In the Pines," the two alternating verses. This is fitting, seeing how the traditional Appalachian folk song was popularized by both African American and white performers such as Lead Belly and Bill Monroe.

Williams closes with his rendition of "When the Roses Bloom Again." Clearly a parody of the sentimental pop standard by Will D. Cobb, the protagonist in Williams' version is separated from his love and moonshine still by the revenue agent, and not wartime.