I was born just a bit too late for Big Bill Broonzy the first time around. A couple of friends have told me recently they’d been aware of him because of the enthusiasm of their big sisters and their record collections. Before it gets into its stride, Bob Riesman‘s fine new biography of the man – I feel so good: the life and times of Big Bill Broonzy (University of Chicago Press, 2011) – boasts not only a Foreword from American music doyen Peter Guralnick and the author’s own Preface, but also an Appreciation from Pete Townshend, whose “A record by Big Bill Broonzy was the first blues record I purchased” answers the query, a few years ago, on the Kinks Preservation Society web digest, when someone asked why British musicians of a certain age mentioned Big Bill so readily (though even Elvis name-checks him). He seemed to be more referenced than listened to. Riesman’s book will tell you precisely why he had such an impact and a whole lot more besides.
Big Bill Broonzy – not actually his real name, which was Lee Bradley, as uncovered by Riesman’s research – was a giant of a man (and not just physically, at 6’3″) whose musical career straddles half a century of American music, from the rural southern string bands (his first instrument, before he took up the guitar, was violin), through delta blues (though he hailed from Arkansas) and north to the vibrant African American small group scene in Chicago in the late ’30s, where he also mixed with jazzers up from New Orleans and experimented with the electric guitar and jump blues in the ’40s, ; many of his records of the ’40s are piano driven, featuring clarinet and trumpet solos; you can hear rock’n’roll years before it was declared publicly. He was a successful and versatile performer, a prolific songwriter and virtuoso guitarist.
In 1938 he filled the blues spot in John Hammond’s groundbreaking From spirituals to swing concert at Carnegie Hall, promoting black music as art to be reckoned with to the broader American audience, and even though third choice for the Delta bluesman (Robert Johnson was recently murdered, Blind Boy Fuller was in gaol for shooting his wife) had a big impact. Post-war he was involved in the proto-civil rights People’s Songs organisation with the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and the subsequent I come for to sing concerts that paved the way for the folk music revival. Still singing the blues a lot of the time, he became a folk singer, back on solo acoustic guitar. His was that oft repeated quote:
I like all songs you know, and some people call this a folk song. Well all the songs that I ever heard in my life was folk songs. I never heard horses sing none of ’em yet.
In 1951, losing his traditional audience to the harder edged electric blues of younger men like Muddy Waters, whose careers he had actively promoted, he started touring as a solo artist to great acclaim in Europe and the UK , the first bluesman to so do. This was of course, one of the reasons he had so much influence, simply because he was here, he was seen and talked about and taken up by the nascent British blues scene, staying with Alexis Korner in Britain and touring with Chris Barber as skiffle took a hold on the nation’s youth. Some European enthusiasts shot a mesmerising short film in a small jazz club in Belgium in 1955. When Low light and blue smoke was shown on British TV the next year, both Ray Davies and Eric Clapton have said it was a life changing moment for them. Filmed in black and white, it’s not difficult to imagine its impact on impressionable young minds. Luckily you can find it in a few places on the web – try clicking here; unfortunately the quality is not exactly HD, although it does improve after the presumably arty title credits. It still is cool, of course, but you can see just how cool it must have been then. In 1957, when it became known Bill was seriously ill in need of extensive hospital care, benefit concerts were arranged for him in the UK. He died the next year from cancer.
As a guitarist his impact was profound, with Davy Graham, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn all professing to their sense of wonder on seeing or hearing something like House rent blues (from Low light and blue smoke again but click here: this is better quality), the thumb of his right hand driving the rhythm, or his lovely performance of the old standard The glory of love. Bert Jansch bought an EP and, he says, “spent a year trying to play that stuff.”
I’ve been listening to Big Bill Broonzy for the last couple of years or so. There’s a three ‘box’ set of 13 CDs covering the years 1928-1951 which is probably (probably!) excessive, but is also, as I say, a fascinating journey through black American musics over the decades. The audio quality of the earliest stuff isn’t great but the momentum and often joyful drive of the music carries you along. Though there are gorgeous moments to be had, I find some of the later folk-ish stuff harder to enjoy – the black Burl Ives indeed, with Jimmy Crack Corn, no less! – with even the blues singing sometimes too pronouncedly expressive, the fine voice drawn out, over accentuated melodramatically (for the cultured white folks?) as opposed to the still strong but (still mighty fine) throwaway, proto-blues shouter tracks (a là Joe Turner – the singer, not Bill’s song of the same name) made fronting a small group, from his middle period. As a writer he’s best known for Key to the highway (Clapton’s homage) and the prescient Just a dream, while his Black, brown and white was quoted at Barack Obama’s inauguration, but there’s a huge catalogue with the odd flash of wit and irony beyond the standard generic blues formulas that are inevitably much in evidence, though with less of the extreme braggadocio of a lot of bluesmen. Muddy Waters led the pallbearer’s at Big Bill’s funeral in Chicago. Years later, performing in Amsterdam, Muddy met Bill’s European son. Before playing Key to the highway he introduced it by saying, “This song is from Big Bill Broonzy, the greatest blues singer who ever lived …” Similarly: “It is great to say I have worked with the best of the blues in the person of Big Bill Broonzy,” wrote Willie Dixon, in his autobiography.
Bob Riesman has written a fine and moving book about a great man, a man who helped many with hardly a word recorded as being said against him. It’s a fascinating story full of dignity, modesty, strength and pride, with a large appetite for life. The times he saw were ones of great change, but he didn’t live to see just how much they would keep on going, so soon, changes he’d help bring on … not Just a dream. It’s one of those ironies that a man, a bluesman, a master craftsman, regarded as the best at what he did for so long, never actually made enough money to live off the music alone until he started regular visits to Europe after, ‘re-branded’ as a folk singer, helping get the folk revival off the ground in America.
He was a storyteller, a raconteur, a showman. His celebrated autobiography – Big Bill Blues (Da Capo, revised edition 1964) – was very early on found to contain various, um, inaccuracies as to times, places and events. Riesman’s research has discovered many many more evasions and inventions. Like, as I’ve said, his real name, when and where he was born, and the non-existence of a claimed influential uncle. Nor did he serve as a soldier in the First world War (a deception he shares, as it happens, with another son of the South, author William Faulkner). But you can’t say the the stories he tells are lies, says Riesman, more that he became a vessel for his generation’s experiences, a rich amalgam of the blues and the life that fed it. Call it poetic license; Big Bill Broonzy surely deserves it.
Lastly, a word about I feel so good as physical object. It’s a really handsome piece of book design featuring an eminently readable text typeface, a good-looking title page, stylishly appropriate chapter heads and, as you can see, a brilliant dust jacket. The Chicago UP’s text house style is Adobe Garamond, but I’ve a feeling with I feel good they’ve used something from the Memphis, Georgia, Rockwell family – anyway, much friendlier to these eyes than the Times Roman derivatives the British publishing industry seems to persist in favouring. Why are American hardback books so much more attractive to sight, feel and touch? The accountants, I guess. Meanwhile, I feel so good feels … so good.