Thursday, November 3, 2011
"I Just Play What Comes on My Mind"-Warner Williams
Though the National Endowment of the Arts honored him this summer for singing them, Warner Williams doesn’t reflect too much on the technicalities of “Piedmont Blues:” what they are, what styles they evolved from or what region of the country they came from.
What the 81-year-old guitarist and singer thinks about is how much he likes making music and watching others enjoy it.
Williams has been playing guitar since he was nine or ten years old. Over the years he has played what the National Endowment of the Arts calls Piedmont blues—and what he calls “blues and spirituals”—around the D.C. area in churches, hole-in-the-wall bars and juke joints, night clubs, house parties and on the street.
Originally from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, Williams comes from a musical family.
He learned guitar by watching his father, a music teacher, he said. All of his eight brothers and three sisters sang or played instruments and the family played together at home regularly when Williams was young.
Church was his first training ground. But by his teens, he was playing in clubs and on the street. He said he once was part of a band called the Moroccos but for the most part has not been a band player. He only played music part-time for much of his life, supporting his family by driving a truck for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “I couldn’t live off music back there then because wouldn’t make no money,” he recalled.
For the last 20 years or so has played in a duo with Jay Summerour, a D.C. area harmonica player who appeared on Williams’ album, Little Bit a Blues, released in the mid-90’s.
In 2004, Smithsonian Folkways released a CD of Williams’ music entitled Blues Highway.
This summer, the National Endowment of the Arts awarded Williams a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. They described him as a singer of Piedmont Blues, a style found in the nation’s Piedmont section, which runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The style includes elements of blues, country, ragtime, jazz, gospel and fiddle tunes, and, in giving him the award, the NEA said Williams’ own influences range from Muddy Waters and Blind Boy Fuller to Hank Williams and Gene Autry.
But with his trademark sunglasses and cowboy hat, Williams views what he does with far less analysis. “I just play what comes on my mind,” he said.
Still, he likes the recognition, as he told Beldon’s Blues Point on October 24, 2011 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, after he and Summerour had just been featured performers at the 10th Annual (Montgomery) County (Maryland) Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities:
BBP: So what did you think when you found out you were getting (the NEA) award? What came into your mind?
Williams: Well, I was glad to get it. First time I’ve ever had one. But I was happy to get it.
BBP: Do you know what they mean by Piedmont Blues, what that means?
BBP: Do you know what they mean by Piedmont Blues, what that refers to?
Williams: No I don’t.
Williams: I just play what comes on my mind. I’ve been playing it since I was about nine or ten years old. I heard my older brothers play blues so I got it from them.
BBP: How did you first learn how to play guitar? Who taught you?
Williams: I taught myself. I’m self taught.
BBP: When you first started out you actually played at clubs?
Williams: I played around the house. Around the house. When I got in my teens I started playing around clubs and things.
BBP: So how did people react to what you were doing?
Williams: Oh yeah. They used to give me free rides on the street car and everything.
BBP: That’s great.
Williams: They used to close the music off the Nickelodeon just to hear me play.
BBP: I understand that you weren’t a blues musician all of your life, that you didn’t make a living at it all of your life. That you did other things for work.
Williams: Well I worked, I drove trucks and everything man, but I just did that on the side. I couldn’t live off music back there then because wouldn’t make no money.
BBP: Can you live off it now?
Williams: I mean you could make music, you might get a nickel or a dime or something, back at that time. Back at the time that I was coming along, you were glad to get that. But nowadays it’s different. I used to play all out in the streets out in D.C. and everywhere. Yeah. Police run me off one corner, I’d go on the next corner. (Both laugh).
BBP: Why’d they do that?
BBP: Why’d they do that?
Williams: Well I guess I was holding up the sidewalk for people.
BBP: So you were just out there trying to play your music and make a living and they kind of rousted you along….
Williams: Yeah. Right.
BBP: Oh. But you must have been good because you must have had an audience to block the foot traffic.
Williams: People liked it, yeah. I had a crowd every time I picked up the guitar.
BBP: So I understand you did your first album just a few years ago.
Williams: Back in the 70’s I guess. I forget what year it was.
BBP: That’s when you did your first album, back in the 70’s?
Williams: I think it might have been…might have been 70’s, yeah.
BBP: But you actually did your first album for a major label, it was like maybe seven years ago, right?
BBP: You actually did your first album for a major label…well that’s what the newspaper said, that you did your first album for a major label, it was like seven years ago, back in the 90’s. When you were in your 70’s, you did an album….
Williams: Probably did, I can’t remember. All I know is..a whole lot of people made music off of me, man.
BBP: How would you describe your guitar technique?
Williams: I don’t know, I just …
BBP: You just play, right?
Williams: I just play, yeah (both laugh).
BBP: What’s your favorite song to do publically?
Williams: I like spirituals.
BBP: You said spirituals?
Williams: I play spirituals too. Spiritual songs. You know, hymms. I like them old songs, like “(On the) Sunny Side of the Street” and all them.
BBP: Got you. I know that you’re playing the College Park Blues Festival that the D.C. Blues Society is holding, what are you going to do there? What are you going to show us?
Williams: I don’t know. Whatever comes into my mind. I don’t never know what I’m going to play. Never know. Whatever comes into my mind is what I play. I don’t have no special song.
BBP: Now I’ve heard you mention the local places that you play at. Have you ever played around the country, gone to different parts of the country to play?
Williams: Oh I’ve played all over. Atlanta. I’ve played every juke joint around in Maryland. Down to South Carolina and everywhere. I’ve played everywhere. I’m 81 years old. I’ve been all over, man.
BBP: I bet you’ve got some wild stories too.
Williams: Oh yeah, I got some wild stories. Me and my brother used to walk the streets with a guitar back in our time.
BBP: You used to what?
Williams: Me and my brother Raymond used to walk the streets with a guitar back in our time.
BBP: Playing outside?
Williams: Playing outside. We used to have crowds lined up a mile down the road. Front porch music, that’s what we’d call it.
By the way, if you happen to be in the D.C. area on November 12—that’s next Saturday—you can hear Williams at the Fourth Annual College Park Blues Festival, a free concert put on by the D.C. Blues Society. Williams will kick off the festival, which will also feature the D.C. Blues Society Band with singer Ayaba Bey (you can find a video of them on our Sept 5, 2011 post), Clarence “The Bluesman” Turner (you can find a video of him on our October 17, 2011 post entitled “Crankin’ in the Capital”) and Tom Newman, a D.C. area guitarist known for his work with Stanley Turrentine, Roy Ayers, Wilson Pickett and Lloyd Price, among others. There will also be raffles, including one of a $600 Rocketeria G&L guitar. The event is at Ritchie Coliseum, across from the University at Route 1 and Rossborough Lane in College Park. Here is the D.C. Blues Society’s website for more information:
And if you are in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania on Friday, November 11, you can catch three "Veterans of the Blues" at Bethlehem's Godfrey Daniels tavern. Multi-instrumentalist Maurice John Vaughn will join horn man B.J. Emery and vocalist/saxophone player "Holle Thee Maxwell" at Godfrey Daniels, located at 7 East Fourth Street, Bethlehem, PA. Tickets are $21.50 in advance, $24.50 at the door. Godfrey Daniels is holding the event in conjunction with the Lehigh Valley Blues Network. For more information check out this website: