Link to Previous Artist
18 of 21
Link to Next Artist

Warner Williams

May 7, 1930

State
Year
United States Map Highlighting Maryland
Loading...
Warner Williams is a songster, a versatile musician whose repertoire includes Piedmont blues, gospel, fiddle tunes and country, ragtime, jazz and popular songs. He prefers to be called a “guitar man.” 2011, photograph by Alan Govenar
Warner Williams, 2011, photograph by Alan Govenar
Warner Williams, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Warner Williams, photograph by Michael G. Stewart

Warner Williams began playing the guitar at 4 years of age. Soon he joined his brothers and sisters performing on the streets of his hometown, Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. “My mother would be in the store shopping, she’d come out, I’d have people all around me,” he told Nick Spitzer for the liner notes to the CD Blues Highway. As a teenager, he was making a living playing on the streets of the nation’s capital. “We stand on the corner anywhere,” he told Spitzer. “We wouldn’t sit down, we’d stand up playing, people would come by, give you some change. The police would run you off one corner, you’d go to the next one. ‘Can’t stand still.’ Just like the song says, ‘Gotta step it up and go.’ I walked the street with the guitar and people stop and ask me to do a tune. I do it, and the next thing that I know, I got a crowd of people.”

A good ear and an extensive repertoire, a hallmark of the Piedmont tradition, stood Williams in good stead as a street musician. “The most music I come up with around here, some people call it ‘hillbilly music,’” he told an interviewer. “I could play that better than I could a blues because I was raised up with white people and that’s all we sung together.” When he was about 22, he won first prize on a Washington, D.C., radio show with a rendition of country singer Ernest Tubb’s “Walkin’ the Floor Over You.”

Williams worked at a variety of jobs, from digging ditches to driving trucks, while raising a large family of his own and continuing to entertain at parties known as “house-hops,” at family picnics and at juke joints throughout the D.C. metro area. Since retiring from his job with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, he has devoted much of his time to performing at schools, blues clubs and folk festivals with his musical partner and harmonica player Jay Summerour. And he plays behind a choir at the Oak Grove Church.

Though he’s often classified as a bluesman, Williams has also been called a songster, a category that includes versatile musicians such as the late Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas. As Spitzer wrote in the liner notes for Blues Highway, “Williams still has an ear for a great blues guitar run or a nifty jazz chord, and for a song as road-wise as 'Key to the Highway,' as raw as 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,' as urbane as 'Honeysuckle Rose,' or as endearing as 'Mouse on the Hill'—all of which are on this CD.”

Discography
Williams, Warner, Live With Jay Summerour. Blues Highway. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, SWF402010.
_______________. Christian Jubilee. Patuxent 2009.
_______________. Down ’N’ Dirty. Patuxent 163, Orchard 6899.
_______________. Little Bit a Blues. Patuxent 038.

Watch

Warner Williams plays 'Blueberry Hill' on Silver Spring's Veterans Plaza, Silver Spring, Maryland, 2011, courtesy Silver Spring Town Center Inc.

Warner Williams interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Warner Williams, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Warner Williams, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Listen

Warner Williams with Jay Summerour, 'Step It Up And Go,' Blues Highway, Folk Masters Live From Wolf Trap, SFW CD 40120

Warner Williams with Jay Summerour, 'Bring It On Down To My House,' Blues Highway, Folk Masters Live From Wolf Trap, SFW CD 40120

Warner Williams with Jay Summerour, 'I'm Confessing That I Love You,' Blues Highway, Folk Masters Live From Wolf Trap, SFW CD 40120

Warner Williams talks to Nicholas R. Spitzer about growing up in a musical family, courtesy American Routes® radio broadcast series, distributed by PRX