Sonny Boy Williamson II: His Unrecognised Lyrical Brilliance

For many blues fans, the name Sonny Boy Williamson II (not to be confused with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, or Sonny Boy Williamson I, of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl fame) conjures up an image of a hawk-like man, standing stooped with a harmonica clasped in hand (or, occasionally, in mouth with his hands free) and declaring his blues, perhaps beneath a bowler hat. While the man's virtuosity on the harmonica was undoubtable and rightly praised, his lyricism is often overlooked. 

Often is the way with true virtuosos in any field: one aspect or certain aspects of their brilliance overshadowed by others. However, even a preliminary study of a song such as Don't Start Me to Talking leaves no question over Sonny Boy's mastery of storytelling and sense of narrative.

The song itself details the narrator's dramatic irony over his audience and the characters in the song. He knows something that no one else knows: the details of furtive meetings and hidden abuses of the song's characters. As he sings:

Well I'm going down to Rosie's 
Stop at Fannie Mae's
Going to tell Fannie what I heard her
Boyfriend say

Don't start me talking,
I'll tell everything I know.
I've got to break up this signifying
'Cause somebody's got to go.

Jack gave his wife two dollars to go downtown
And get some margarine
Gets out on the streets
Oh George stopped 'em.
He knocked her down
And blackened her eye,
​She gets back home
And tells her husband a lie.

Don't start me to talking,
I'll tell everything I know.
I'm gonna break up this signifying,
'Cause somebody's got to go.

She borrowed some money
To go to the beauty shop
Jim honked his horn
She began to stop.
Said, "take me baby
Around the block,
I'm going to the beauty shop where I can 
Get my hair sock"

Don't start me talking
I'll tell everything I know.
Well to break up this signifying
Somebody's got to go.

The song is not a typical blues in the sense that it is not in an AAB or AAA verse structure; however the more free-verse feel allows Sonny Boy to reveal the details of the narrative with the pace of someone conveying compelling news. The song raises several questions: who is Jack's wife, and what exactly is her relationship with George? Who is Rosie, and who is Fannie Mae? Why does Fannie Mae's boyfriend know all these details, and how did the narrator come to overhear such a shocking conversation? 

These questions go unanswered throughout the course of the song, yet the intrigue they raise is only heightened by the final two verses - the penultimate verse presenting the chance meeting of George and Jack's wife, during which he strikes her, visibly blackening her eye. Getting home, she lies to Jack - presumably about how she sustained the injury. This of course suggests some kind of furtive, demonstrably abusive, lover's relationship.

The final verse appears to be a continuation and extension of the lie: borrowing some money from an unnamed individual, Jack's wife proceeds to the beauty shop - presumably to purchase items that will conceal her injury. Another character, Jim, sees her, and gets her attention by honking his horn. He then takes her to the beauty shop in order that Jack's wife can get her "hair sock." Is Jack's wife here lying to Jim about her reason for visiting the beauty shop? Could the reason be that Jim is another secret lover of Jack's wife (this is certainly suggested by the way she speaks to him, for instance), and for her to confess her true reason for visiting the beauty shop would be for her to reveal to Jim the existence of other lovers, perhaps causing her the same treatment - or worse - that she suffered at George's hand?

Though the narrator exposes all of this information, the chorus refrain consists of the narrator's insistence "Don't start me to talking/I'll tell everything I know." This evidently suggests that there is more to be told; that this narrative of intrigue and secret affairs is only a small portion of the narrator's uncommon knowledge.

One way to read this would be to see the narrator as something like a social martyr: revealing the worst of his uncommon knowledge in order to help those being wronged or abused. However, the tone of the song - and particularly that of the chorus refrain - I would argue suggests otherwise. The narrator seems more inclined to gossip and rumour-spreading - his insistence to not start him talking a concealed arrogance about the purported knowledge he possesses about other people and their goings-on - than to providing help or warning to others. It is not entirely clear, for example, who is the truly wronged or abused in this song: while Jack's wife suffers blatant physical abuse, if the interpretation of the song presented above is accepted, isn't Jack also a figure who has been wronged? That is, by is wife's infidelity, to which Jack appears to be wholly ignorant? Therefore, who is the narrator helping here by telling his tale, which serves only to humiliate Jack's wife and threatens to destroy Jack's ignorance? 

The answer must of course be himself: the narrator is clearly a figure with many connections (by going down to Rosie's, he first intends to stop off at Fannie Mae's, for example), and his purported knowledge - which, after all, is simply rumour and hear-say gleaned by overhearing a conversation - is ripe for speculative mutterings. Sonny Boy here, then, presents a complex case of potentially true events contorted by the lens of one keen to gossip and occupy oneself with the conjectural narrative. 

Just like Bob Dylan, then, in a song such as All Along the Watchtower, Sonny Boy in Don't Start Me to Talking presents a cast of characters bound in complex and uncertain relationships, with the nature, identity and motivations of the narrator himself crucially left ambiguous; and all of this in only a matter of verses. The tale itself is not only compelling, but leaves the listener curious; and like all great narratives, the listener can readily find universal themes contained within the lines.


Sonny Boy Williamson II, Don't Start Me to Talking:

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