Friday, May 20, 2005


"been so long, the carpet has faded on the floor"

Sonny Boy Williamson (II), Mighty Long Time.

In which we present the triumph of guile and age over wasted youth.

Imagine if an older rock musician, someone born in the '50s and who has been playing for decades, began recording under the name Kurt Cobain, releasing albums that, in time, people would confuse with those of the original Kurt Cobain, and that ultimately would dwarf the original Cobain's records in terms of influence.

It happened in the blues. Aleck "Rice" Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, was born in 1899, fifteen years before John Lee Williamson, the original Sonny Boy Williamson, whose name Miller would appropriate. It's unclear when Miller started using the "Sonny Boy" name, but the first Williamson's murder in 1948 cleared the way for Miller's assumption. (You could call it a blues papal name.)

Miller had been an itinerant musician in the South throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and gained regional attention by playing harp and singing on "King Biscuit Time," a radio program based out of Helena, Arkansas. Levon Helm, recounting his youth: "If it was a Saturday afternoon, everybody knew that I was downtown with the good people of Marvell, Arkansas watching Sonny Boy and his King Biscuit Entertainers performing outdoors on a makeshift stage."

In 1951, Sonny Boy Williamson II began recording for Trumpet, an independent label started up by Lillian McMurry. "Mighty Long Time", the highlight of these early sessions, features an eerie repeating vocal bass figure (by Cliff Givens) supporting a duel between Williamson's astonishing harp playing and his voice.

Released as Trumpet 166, b/w "Nine Below Zero," in April 1951. All of Williamson's great Trumpet sides are collected on Arhoolie's King Biscuit Time.

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