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Williamson, Sonny Boy [John Lee]

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Williamson, Sonny Boy [John Lee]

(b Jackson, TN, 30 March 1914; d Chicago, 1 June 1948). American blues singer and harmonica player. He moved to Chicago in 1932 and five years later made his first recording, Good Morning School Girl (1937, Bb), which introduced his individual, widely influential harmonica style of ‘squeezed’ notes and ‘crossed-harp’ playing (e.g., playing in the key of E on an A harmonica). A slight speech impediment, evident on Big Apple Blues (1941, Bb), gave his singing a distinctive tongue-tied quality which was much imitated. His lyrics included biographical themes, for example Bad Luck Blues (1939, Bb), on the murder of his cousin; narrative pieces, such as Joe Louis and John Henry Blues (1939, Bb); and the patriotic War Time Blues (1940, Bb). Many of his recordings were taken at a brisk ‘jump’ tempo, such as Sloppy Drunk Blues (1941, Bb) and Mellow Chick Swing (1947, Vic.). These recordings benefited from the presence of the pianists Blind John Davis or Big Maceo Merriwether and either Big Bill Broonzy or Willie Lacey on guitar. Williamson’s brand of small-group blues prepared the way for the postwar Chicago blues bands; his harmonica playing is equalled in importance only by that of Little Walter, on whom he had a strong influence. With blues singers Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim, Williamson was recorded pseudonymously as ‘Sib’ by Alan Lomax in 1947. Williamson was murdered in his early 30s; shortly before his death the blues singer and harmonica player Rice Miller performed, and later toured and recorded, with widespread success under the name Sonny Boy Williamson, which he claimed to have invented.




F. Smith: ‘The Death of Sonny Boy Williamson’, Blues Unlimited, no.48 (1967), 14–15

M. Leadbitter, ed.: Nothing but the Blues (London, 1971)

M. Rowe: Chicago Breakdown (London, 1973)

A. Lomax: The Land where the Blues Began (London, 1977)


Williamson ‘II’, Sonny Boy [Miller, Rice; Miller, Alex; Miller, Alec]

(b Glendora, MS, 5 Dec 1899; d Helena, AR, 25 May 1965). American blues singer and harmonica player. He was called Rice by childhood friends and assumed his stepfather’s name of Miller as a young man. He borrowed the name of the younger, but more famous, blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson when he began to broadcast for the Interstate Grocer Company, the makers of Sonny Boy White Corn Meal, in 1941. The firm promoted his appearances on radio and in travelling road shows in the 1940s. His first record, Eyesight to the Blind (1951, Trumpet), made in Jackson, Mississippi, with a forceful local band, reveals a mature blues artist behind his trembling vocal line and amplified harmonica. Mighty Long Time (1952, Trumpet), with only a vocal bass for accompaniment, showed that he could be a subtle performer, playing and singing with feeling. In 1955 Williamson moved to Milwaukee, where he made the hit recording Don’t start me to talkin’ (1955, Checker), backed by Muddy Waters and his band. Generally, he preferred to record with the guitarist Robert jr Lockwood (the stepson of Robert Johnson), with whom he remade an earlier success, Nine Below Zero (1961, Checker). In 1963–4 he reached a new audience when he toured extensively in Europe. His popularity there brought him the satisfaction that was denied him in his youth, as he indicated on On my way back home (1963, Sto.), one of the many late recordings that showed his command of his instrument and a gentler side to his musical personality. In the last year of his life he returned to broadcasting for the Interstate Grocer Company.



J.J. Broven: ‘Sonny Boy Williamson’, Blues Unlimited, no.8 (1964), 3–4 [incl. discography by K. Mohr]

P. Oliver: ‘Remembering Sonny Boy’, American Folk Music Occasional, ii, ed. C. Strachwitz and P. Welding (New York, 1970), 39–44

M. Leadbitter: ‘Bring it on Home’, Blues Unlimited, no.98 (1973), 4–13

P. Oliver: ‘The Original Sonny Boy: Alex Rice Miller’, Blues Off the Record: Thirty Years of Blues Commentary (Tunbridge Wells and New York, 1984), 253–8

W.E. Donoghue: Don't Start Me to Talkin’ (Seattle, 1997)


Williamson, T(homas) G(eorge)

(b London, 1758–9; d Paris, Oct 1817). English army officer, composer, author and music publisher. He joined the Bengal Army at 19 and sailed for India in 1778. After 20 years on active service there his career as an officer came to a sudden end. He was a captain in the 17th N. India Regiment when he was suspended for having written a letter, signed ‘Mentor’, published in the Calcutta Telegraph on 17 March 1798, in which he criticized the Government’s military policy. He was ordered home, his conduct being found by the Board ‘highly criminal and of a dangerous tendency’, and was later retired on half pay.

On his return to London, Williamson opened a warehouse in the Strand, ‘where a great variety of Music, Instruments, as also Prints and Drawings, may be had’. As a self-proclaimed authority on all matters Indian, his main value as a musical commentator lies in his remarks on the lucrative export trade in instruments between London and India. In his East India Vade-mecum (London, 1810), for example, he offered detailed advice on how instruments could best be transported by sea, and information on tuning costs in India. The instruments ‘most appropriate for hot climates’ included those made by Clementi, Kirkman and Tomkison.

Also reflecting Williamson’s Indian background are some of the title-pages of his own published compositions. His op.1 piano sonatinas are dedicated to a former colleague, Captain Charles Crawford, and two sets of piano pieces are inscribed to Sir George Shee, a writer who had been a civilian in the Bombay and the Bengal Establishments. Williamson’s two sets of ‘Hindostannee Airs’ are part of a well established tradition of making arrangements of Indian tunes that can be traced back to the mid-1780s. Early examples of the genre make some attempt to be ‘authentic’, through the use of devices such as drones and modal accidentals, but by the time that Williamson published his sets, the fashion was to arrange ‘Hindostannee’ tunes in a manner that made them indistinguishable (except in their titles) from other so-called ‘national’ airs, almost all of which were characterized by a light, facile and tuneful style. One point of interest in his first collection are pieces entitled A Song of Kannum’s and A Dancing Tune of Kannum’s; in the late 1780s, a Cashmerian nautch dancer and singer, known to the English as ‘Khanum’, enjoyed an exceptionally high reputation among army officers.


all published in London



Six Favourite Sonatinas, pf (1797)


Six Canzonetts, 1v, pf (c1800)


Twenty-five National Airs, pf, parts 1, 2 (?1797); also for vn, vc


Twelve Original Hindostanee Airs, pf (?1797)


Twenty Small Pieces, pf/fl/vn (?1797)


Thirty Little Airs, 2 fl/vn, vc ad lib (?1798)


Ten Easy Lessons, pf (?1801); also pubd as op.9


Second Collection of 12 Original Hindostanee Airs, pf (?1800)

Songs pubd singly



India Office Records: Bombay Civilians, O/6/35; Bengal Civilians, O/6/28; Index to Bengal Public Consultations 1788, Z/P/558, f.138; Home Miscellaneous Series, H/411, ff.357–439

Press List of Ancient Documents Preserved in the Imperial Record Room of the Government of India, ix: 1775–9 (Calcutta, 1906)

V.C.P. Hodson: List of the Officers of the Bengal Army 1758–1834 (London, 1927–47)

O. Edwards: ‘Captain Thomas Williamson of India’, Modern Asian Studies, xiv (1980), 673–82

O. Edwards: ‘Captain Williamson's Compositions: Fashionable Music by an Army Officer’, MR, xlii (1981), 116–29

R. Leppert: ‘Music, Domestic Life and Cultural Chauvinism: Images of British Subjects at Home in India’, Music and Society, ed. R. Leppert and S. McClary (Cambridge, 1987), 63–104

I. Woodfield: ‘The “Hindostannie Air”: English Attempts to Understand Indian Music in the Late Eighteenth Century’, JRMA, cxix (1994), 189–211

I. Woodfield: ‘Collecting Indian Songs in 18th-Century Lucknow: Problems of Transcription’, British Journal of Ethnomusicology, iii (1994), 73–88


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