The Mysterious Sounds Of Blind Connie Williams, Possibly The Best Philly Street Singer Who Ever Lived

The only known still photograph of Blind Connie Williams. [Wikimedia Commons]

The only known still photograph of Blind Connie Williams. [Wikimedia Commons]

BY JOEY SWEENEY

There’s usually a set of common clues available to fans of vanished blues singers — notes from travelling folklorists like Alan Lomax, some surviving 78rpm recordings, perhaps a newspaper article or other document — but these days, it feels like Blind Connie Williams might be the closest we have to a truly cold case. And that’s probably because whereas many old bluesmen (and blueswomen) sprang from some kind of well-documented place like showbiz or even church, Blind Connie Williams plied his trade on perhaps the least documented entertainment district ever — the streets of Philadelphia.

Born in 1915 to migrant worker parents in Florida, Williams lived in Philadelphia — on Lombard Street, Wikipedia tells us — for much of his adult life; his death date, if there has been one — and if there hasn’t, boy, would we love to speak with him — is unknown. But in between those two brackets, he left just one out-of-print LP, and style that’s as singular as any in 20th Century gospel or blues.

Two things are usually going on in a Connie Williams tune on top of what would ordinarily be a compelling enough guitar-and-voice performance on its own: A signature kind of bass string slapping on his guitar that converts his guitar into a percussion instrument as well as a melodic one, and a perfectly controlled yet beautifully unpredictable falsetto that is, and I honestly mean this, really exciting. Only the high, mysterious sound of John Jacob Niles ever gets into this neighborhood for us.

The vehicles for Williams’ street performances were usually gospel tunes, so chosen because, according to Pete Welding, “the police rarely would bother him if he confined himself to this sort of material.” (One can’t help but wonder if this still holds true for local street musicians.) It was Welding, likewise a Philly local, who “discovered” — insomuch as anyone could claim discovery of someone who was plying his trade in the middle of the sidewalk — Williams in the early 1960s, and it’s to him we owe a debt of gratitude for Blind Connie Williams’ lone LP, released in alternate versions as Traditional Blues, Spirituals and Folksongs or Philadelphia Street Singer on the Welding’s now-defunct Testament Records label. (Welding departed this earthly plane in 1995.)

Today, even finding a copy of that record is extremely difficult. Luckily, it survives in this somewhat bastardized playlist form on YouTube, as does the above clip of him playing, recently unearthed the jazz and blues archivist label Dust To Digital. Other recordings show up here and there on old compilation albums, but for a performer who, having performed for decades on end, we can reasonably assume had a broad repertoire of songs, Williams again leaves behind precious little in the form of documentation.

What is there, though, is stunning. Where so many old blues recordings can sound like bawdy growling through an old cylinder recording, Blind Connie Williams fairly jumps right out of the speakers with charm and abandon. He sounds like he’s happening right now. And who knows, somewhere on the night breeze over on Lombard Street tonight, maybe he just is.  

Marvel With Us, Won’t You, At What Could Be The Ugliest Piece Ever Displayed At The Philly Furniture Show

Algorithms have conspired against us for two weeks now to show us, at every possible opportunity, the work you see above, in relation to promoting the Philly Furniture Show, slated to open at the 23rd Street Armory this weekend. It’s been on Facebook, it’s been in our emails, it even finally showed up on Instagram last night, making us wonder, finally: What is this thing, and what did I do to deserve it?

The work in question is called "Boss, I hit a tree" by an artisan called David Lee Moneypenny; Mr. Moneypenny has used “crashed auto parts and reclaimed wood” to fashion this creation, which as you see, has a shelf of some kind and two drawers. The charitable souls at the Philly Furniture Show call it “witty, beautiful and one of a kind,” and indeed, that’s one way to put it. Another would be “a fantastical imagining of what would happen if a leftist magician saw Donald Trump at a Sonic drive-thru and shouted ‘Ala-kazam!’ with a mouth full of fries.” Even its title is a form of apology; here, we see what George W. Bush might have done in his retirement years if he’d chosen installation art instead of painting to atone for his crimes. In any case, this thing has been hounding us around the Internet day after day. We’d like to, if we could at this time, pass it along to you.

Unlikely Heroes Of The Moment: Wheelie Kids

BY JOEY SWEENEY

Amidst all of our grousing — the changes happening so rapidly in the city’s mad churn, the grinding gears of gentrification and crap politicians producing fresh humiliations daily — it feels good to remember that this is the kind of place Philadelphia is: It’s the kind of place where a group of black bloc anarchists can have their hides saved by a few hundred wheelie kids, as the local police tell a small, dejected, incredulous group of out-of-town Trump supporters that they should really consider going home. On Saturday, this is precisely what transpired.

On Saturday morning, the #MAGA March we’d written about previously began in earnest near Independence Hall. From the start, it was evident that the #MAGA group’s choice of location showed how fundamentally flawed their perception of this country’s basic tenets really are: In the same way that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, those who wrap themselves in the flag often are not familiar with the words it represents:

In any case, the First Amendment guarantees even the most confused among us to voice their opinions, and so here they were. And on the other side of the little veal pen authorities had put up as protection for these definitely-not-snowflake pro-Trump demonstrators was… everybody else. And much as in the larger reality of America right now, there were a hell of a lot more of them than there were of the other poor fools. Worse news still for the Trump brigade, they were Philadelphians, known for their volume as well their magic touch when it comes to the profane.

Accounts vary, but in short order, something like this happened: At some point, black bloc protestors had effectively hijacked the #MAGA March, and made it their own. Authorities on the scene had been reported as variously telling the #MAGA crew to “go back to their automobiles” — it was assumed they’d all driven there, being from places that require the misery that only automotive travel could deliver you to — and also being “pissed” at how many of them were openly carrying firearms. In Philly, you see, we prefer our firearms concealed; anything else registers as tacky. (The finer points of all of the above, we should remind you, are hearsay, and indeed, over on the #MAGA March Facebook event page, they’re still complaining about it.)

Even so, the threat of violence lingered in the air as the black bloc co-opted the #MAGA March’s protest route through Center City — for as much as the Philly police might have been annoyed with the #MAGA mooks, it’s not like they have special love for a gang of masked black bloc anarchists, either. After all, this is Philadelphia, on a Saturday; everyone’s primary concern should have been brunch. And so the cops began a process called “kettling,” a kind of cops-vs.-demonstrators cat-and-mouse series of actions that attempt to corner an element and contain/detain it.

Just then, something fantastic happened: The wheelie kids showed up and mingled right into the space on the Parkway where the black bloc folks were, too. In a matter of seconds, a threat diffused, even as confusion and rancor still played out. “Wheelie kids?,” some of you are quite rightly asking. Yes, wheelie: That group of unattended minors who seem to be gaining a sort of cultural momentum and infamy around the city, even as acne and emotions begin to threaten their very being. And so it went, and so went the attempted kettling: Police actions simply can’t go a certain way when there are children involved. Even more so when many of them are popping wheelies.

WATCH: Nightlands' Mini-Homage To The Pinball Machine At Loco Pez

Human Hearts

A post shared by Dave Hartley (@nightlands) on

Dave Hartley wears a lot of hats — bassist for The War on Drugs, sought-after session dude and of course, CEO of the dreamy science-pop project Nightlands — but to those who know him best, he is perhaps above all an increasingly noted pinball aficionado. When he’s not traveling the world in search of perfect pin (usually using apps like this one, basically Grindr for pinball machines), he’s perched at Fishtown’s Loco Pez, at the lone pinball machine in the back, which has alternately been a Ghostbusters one, or a Family Guy one, and so on. And in this teaser vid for his for “Human Hearts,” from the forthcoming Nightlands LP I Can Feel The Night Around Me, Hartley bares what one imagines to be both his heart and his daily pinball commute. Like “Lost Moon,” the other leaked track from I Can Feel…, “Human Hearts” traffics in a sweetly, melancholy kinda space doo-wop/Lover’s Lane type of vibe — perhaps appropriately bittersweet for Loco Pez, who’ve seen better days.

I Can Feel The Night Around Me is out on May 5th, with the attendant Nightlands tour hitting Johnny Brenda’s on May 27th. Check out "Lost Moon" here: