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.