Big Bill Broonzy--- The Bill Broonzy Story   Verve MGV 3000-5--- The Records You Didn’t Know You Needed #11 Part 2

But who had they really found? Was the Big Bill they applauded the same man that had been living in Chicago for sixteen years and recording for ten, who had made dozens of records and was one of the biggest stars in Black music? Did they want to listen to and applaud that man? It seems clear that the answer was “No.”

In the program for the concert, Broonzy’s bio claimed that “Between record dates he is a farmhand.” “New Masses” magazine published in its January 3, 1939, issue, a review of the concert by John Sebastian (was this the harmonica virtuoso father of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian?) that read in part, “Big Bill Broonzy: He bought a new pair of shoes and got on a bus in Arkansas to make his first trip to New York to sing blues and play guitar at Carnegie Hall. His blues are the most fundamental kind…typical of hundreds of itinerant musicians in the South.” In John Hammond’s 1959 notes to the issue of the concert on LP, he wrote, “Big Bill Broonzy was prevailed upon to leave his Arkansas farm and mule and make his very first trek to the big city…” Some accounts of the concert claim that Broonzy was introduced as an “ex sharecropper” and wore coveralls at the urging of John Hammond.

In a supreme, jaw dropping irony, the reason Broonzy was presented, possibly intentionally, so falsely was a search for “authenticity.” The white audience could appreciate the obvious virtuosity of Black jazz musicians like the ones in the Count Basie Orchestra who performed at the concert because their music, while more bluesy and hard swinging, was not very different from the popular white dance bands. A “primitive” blues singer on the other hand sounded utterly alien---- incomprehensible lyrics sung to (seemingly) a monotonous melody, frequently veering out of tune, accompanied by unschooled, incompetent guitar strumming. Hammond said that “primitive blues” should be listened to because it was one of the roots of jazz, implying that the music was of historical interest only and that its only true practitioners were uneducated, Black men who were farm workers in the South, preferably Mississippi, that began playing in the early 20th Century.

The up-to-date urban blues music that Broonzy and dozens of other Black artists were playing in Chicago and other cities was regarded as a commercialized, watered-down version of the “authentic blues,” and ignored. The Black people who listened to, danced to and bought Broonzy’s records certainly regarded his contemporary urban blues music as an authentic expression of their lives and culture, but Hammond and the white people who organized the concerts, controlled the music business and wrote the books and articles decided what was “authentic” Black music, at least for them.

Broonzy was an adaptable, highly skilled professional musician and a very intelligent man who had grown up in the Jim Crow South and knew how to, in the words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, “…wear the mask that grins and lies.” His success at the “From Spirituals to Swing” concert showed Broonzy that he could appeal to a white audience if he played the role of the white people’s idea of an “authentic” blues singer---a semi-literate, sharecropper from Mississippi who sang old folk songs. For the rest of his professional life, he created and crafted that persona. It is hard to believe that Hammond, Lomax, other people in the music business and even the audiences didn’t know it was an act, but everyone chose to believe. Complex, strange and mysterious indeed are the mores and entanglements of race in America.

Broonzy appeared equally successfully at the second “From Spirituals to Swing” concert on December 24, 1939. Soon after he was booked into the ultra-hip Café Society, in Greenwich Village, the first nightclub to present Black performers before an integrated audience. He continued to appear in Black clubs and theaters and continued to make records, some of them “hits” for the Black blues audience, while making occasional concert appearances for white audiences.

For almost three years during World War 2, Broonzy did not make records due to a union recording ban. When the record companies began recording again and the war ended, the Black American music scene had changed dramatically. Up-tempo jazz-influenced novelty tunes like those of Louis Jordan and the crooning “cocktail blues” of Charles Brown dominated the Black music charts. In Chicago, Muddy Waters was playing Mississippi blues in a rocking, aggressive style using an electric guitar while creating the template for “Chicago Blues.”

Broonzy was 42 years old, his music was old fashioned and he was no longer at the forefront of black music. He had to know that his long-term career prospects as a “blues singer” were bleak, but he also knew that there was another audience that he could appeal to by playing the role of what was now being called a “folk blues singer” --- the white people’s notion of what an “authentic” blues singer was. His new career was about to begin.

In July 1946, Broonzy appeared in New York at a “hootenanny” sponsored by People’s Songs, an organization led by Pete Seeger that aimed to use folk music to advance political causes such as civil rights. In November, he appeared again in New York at Town Hall in a concert entitled “Blues At Midnight”, which was part of a series of concerts of American folk music presented by Alan Lomax in conjunction with People’s Songs. Broonzy was a success, garnering a positive mention in a New York Times review. Always the shrewd professional, Broonzy surely noticed that the loudest applause he received was for his song “Black, Brown and White Blues,” which forthrightly attacked color discrimination. It became a staple of the repertoire he was creating for his new politically concerned progressive audience and he played it for the rest of his career. (Lines from the song were near quoted at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.)

Back in Chicago, Broonzy continued to work as “blues singer” in Black clubs while nurturing a parallel “folk blues” career singing at People’s Songs concerts. In 1947, Studs Terkel put together a folk song review he called “I Come for to Sing” featuring himself as narrator and three singers performing folk songs dating back to Elizabethan times. Broonzy took on the “folk blues” role.

The review was very successful and provided a much needed source of income. For the next three years, Broonzy toured college campuses with it. He had not recorded since 1949, and his club work in Chicago was now mainly as the between sets act for Muddy Waters and other new “Chicago Blues” performers. During 1950 and much of 1951, he was reduced to working as a janitor in the unlikely location of Ames, Iowa, while playing a few blues and folk blues gigs in Chicago.

In June 1951, Broonzy embarked on a long European tour. One of his fellow singers in “I Come for to Sing” had observed his success with white audiences and had recommended him to a French promoter. The tour was a rousing success. Broonzy performed a mixture of folk songs --- "John Henry,” “Frankie and Johnnie,” blues from the 20s and 30s --- "Back Water Blues,” “In The Evening,” some pop songs, and told stories about the blues, racial injustice and the lives of Black people in the Jim Crow South. In Paris, he made his first recordings in over two years, documenting his new “folk-blues” concert repertoire.

Broonzy made his last recordings aimed at the Black blues audience in April, 1953 for Chess Records. For the session, he abandoned the pop-influenced vocal style he had been using for his folk-blues records and sounded rougher, bluesier, less stilted, and more conversational, like he was sharing some stories with his friends, his people. The records were poor sellers.

He made four more successful tours of Europe, spending, in total, approximately two years there. In the U.S., he became a successful “folk blues” artist playing colleges and folk clubs. In April 1957, Broonzy visited a doctor about a persistent cough and was told that he had lung cancer and needed an operation.

Broonzy knew that the Story sessions might be the last time he would ever sing and understandably, he was in a reminiscing mood. The sessions took on the nature of a valediction. Friends and fans showed up to listen. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry came to the studio to play and swap stories with Bill (unfortunately the recordings have never been released). Broonzy’s guitar playing was in stellar form and his voice was still strong and beautiful, seemingly unaffected by the disease that was killing him.

The 5 LP set begins with Broonzy singing what is today probably his best known song, “Key To The Highway.” It’s a masterful performance with a boogie groove guitar accompaniment that displays his incredible time feel and clean picking. Upon finishing the song, Broonzy says that he learned it from his “Uncle Jerry.” During concerts, he frequently credited “Uncle Jerry” for teaching him the blues, but Bob Riesman states in “I Feel So Good” that “Uncle Jerry” is completely absent from family records and memories. The mysterious uncle was most probably a way of personalizing and making a good story out of Broonzy’s experiences hearing anonymous, forgotten musicians in his youth.

“Mindin’ My Own Business” is next with a beautiful, irony-tinged vocal that fits the song, perfectly accompanied by that always amazing and swinging guitar. Broonzy, maybe because he was always aware that he was performing a role, is possibly the only bluesman that could communicate irony. He talks about how “Uncle Jerry” sang the song until Bill’s mother chased him out of the house when he sang the verse about gambling, and she realized the song was not a spiritual. It's a clever tale that illustrates the “blues versus the church” conflict in Black culture and within so many blues singers.

“Joe Turner Blues” is an incredible guitar show piece. While he talks and sings, he plays varying rhythms including eight bars of show off boogie woogie, all propelled by Broonzy’s thumb picking while his fingers play the melody, sometimes in counter rhythm. At times, he sounds like a singer backed by two great guitarists playing their flashiest licks. According to Broonzy, Joe Turner was a white man that gave food anonymously to Black people suffering hard times who didn’t know he was their benefactor until after he died and was being buried. It’s a “feel good” story that probably went over well with his audiences, but it’s dramatically different from the more common interpretation of the song—that Turner was a chain gang operator who would transport convicts and sometimes unwary, innocent Black men to prison or labor camps.

The highlight of the sessions is when Broonzy pays tribute to “old friends of mine.” His own death and his legacy were clearly weighing on his mind as he talks about and performs the songs of deceased singers.

Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues” about the Mississippi flood of 1927 is played slower than the original version with a superb guitar arrangement and mournful storytelling vocal. The last line, Bessie sang was “There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go.” Broonzy’s last line, “There was thousands and thousands of my poor people, at that time, they didn’t have no place to go” makes the song a social comment rather than a tale of personal woe. He then tells an incredibly unlikely story about a record company sending him, Bessie, Ma Rainey, and other blues singers to Mississippi to view the flood and write songs about it in a contest for a $500 prize.

Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too” and Jim Jackson’s “Kansas City” are wonderfully performed. Broonzy changes the words “…where they don’t allow you” in the last three verses of “Kansas City” to “…where they don’t allow me. ”. He introduces “In the Evening” by saying of its composer Leroy Carr who had died in 1935, “I don’t think he’ll ever die, because a song like this, don’t die.” Then he sings the song and it’s profoundly, beautifully sad, especially the lines, “So goodbye sweethearts and pals, I declare I’m going away.”

After singing “Worried Life Blues” by his friend and sometime accompanist, Big Maceo, he comments, “He’s dead, but I don’t think this song’ll ever die neither….and I don’t want it to die.” “Trouble In Mind,” a song he frequently performed in concerts, is slowed down here and sung much bluesier. He says of its composer Richard M. Jones, “He’s dead too. But a song like this…they still live…Because I don’t care what kind of blues a guy get up, he’s got some of Leroy Carr, Big Maceo, Tampa Red, Richard Jones, Jim Jackson, Charlie Jackson …. (pause)…. well Big Bill too. They got some of us in there. So, that’s why that I sing these songs because these fellas is dead and I am alive and I can sing ‘em.” “Me and him was raised up together from kids.” Broonzy says offhandedly, an extremely unlikely claim as Jones was born eleven years before Broonzy in Louisiana.

Leadbelly was his boss when they worked together on the railroad, Broonzy says introducing “Take This Hammer.” It was another of Bill’s “good stories” that is unlikely and undocumented. Mortality is still on Bill’s mind, “He’s dead too. But songs that he written, I don’t think they’ll ever die.” In many ways, Leadbelly’s career was a template for Broonzy’s “folk blues” career, except that Leadbelly really was a genuine folk artist. He was born fourteen years before Broonzy and learned much of his repertoire before the blues came to dominate African-American music. Broonzy tellingly says of Leadbelly “He was really a better folk singer as they call them songs than he was a blues singer.”

Randle’s goal was to document Broonzy’s repertoire and he largely succeeded. Pop songs like “Bill Bailey” and “The Glory of Love,” a #1 hit for Benny Goodman in 1936, folk songs like “John Henry” and “Frankie and Johnnie,” and spirituals --- "Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is,” “This Train.” were all performed in addition to the blues. Randle wanted Broonzy to tell his story and during the Story sessions, he told a story replete with false claims such as that he was a Mississippi bluesman, that he had been a plow hand for forty years, as well a preacher, had served in the army in France during World War 1, that he had done every type work in the South, that he was illiterate, and that his uncle was 107 years old.

Broonzy wasn’t telling his story. He was telling a story of the blues and African American life in the Jim Crow South in the early twentieth century. When Broonzy says that “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” is about “man catchers” who would lure impoverished Black people to travel to far off places with promises of employment, not pay them and make the people walk home “Feelin’ Bad,” or that “Make My Getaway” is about Black laborers fleeing brutal conditions on work gangs, is it really important that it never happened to him? When asked by Terkel if a blues singer, needs to have experienced what he sings about, Broonzy responds by saying of the songs he learned from his “uncle,” “I never lived it. I never lived through that life. Fact of business is it never did happen to me. But he said it happened to him. I feels it the same when I sing it…” That’s a succinct description of what an artist does.

After the operation, which took place the day after the Story sessions were completed, he never sang again. His voice was now only a hoarse whisper. His last public performance was a short set, playing guitar at a square dance at the University of Chicago. One can only hope that the sight of people dancing to his music made him think of happier times. He suffered terribly until he died on August 15, 1958. A friend was quoted in the notes to The Bill Broonzy Story , “There was the quiet watch, the cooling of Bill’s hands, the ambulance ride through Jackson Park to Billings hospital, to the accompaniment of lightning and rolling thunder. When we arrived, Big Bill had passed.”

So, what are we to make of the story of Bill Broonzy? I wrote a summary paragraph that discussed the white critics who called him a slick entertainer that had created a persona and a repertoire that appealed to white people and I pointed out that his folk blues records are not popular with blues fans/collectors who now favor Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, other post war Chicago Blues and Southern “down home” artists, or white guitar heroes. The white people still decide what authentic blues is (or do they really?) but now they have taken a 180 degree turn away from Broonzy. After some thought, I threw the paragraph away. Broonzy and the blues don’t need another bickering white critic. I decided to let Broonzy speak for himself. In his own words:

“As for me, I would love to pick up a book and read a story about Big Bill Broonzy. I wouldn’t care if it’s just a story about how I live or how drunk I was the last time that they saw Big Bill. I would enjoy reading it because it could be true. But when you write about me, please don’t say I’m a jazz musician. Don’t say I’m a musician or a guitar player – just write that Big Bill was a well-known blues singer and player and has recorded 260 blues songs from 1925 up till 1952…. he was liked by all the blues singers.”

The Bill Broonzy Story was recorded at Universal Recording owned by the legendary Bill Putnam who later owned and operated the United Western studio in L.A. (Sinatra, Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Rolling Stones, etc. ad infinitum) No engineer is listed in the credits but likely it was Putnam. The sound is excellent 3D mono. Broonzy’s voice is warm, thick, dark, and round, and recorded with a very wide dynamic range. When he “hollers” during “Hollerin’ The Blues,” his voice is a physical force moving the air in the room. When he speaks, it’s obvious when he turns his head and during the occasional stuttering, his rapid intakes of breath can be heard clearly. The recording of the guitar is outstanding. All the strings can be heard distinctly and Bill’s dexterous thumb on the low strings is heard to be playing a melodic line with varying intensity and volume and not just thumping. The illusion that I was in the studio with him and that he was sitting six feet away was one of the most convincing and enjoyable instances of audio magic I’ve ever experienced. It’s far and away the best recording of Broonzy ever made.

I played the records using my reference Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge and the sound was sweet and detailed but I thought maybe a bit reserved. I decided to give my Hana SL mono a try and was surprised by an increased dynamic range and a wider soundstage that sounded near stereo. More dynamic range also accentuated the rhythm of Broonzy’s swinging, dance groove which made for more fun. I’d recommend playing the records with a mono cartridge if possible.

The Bill Broonzy Story was issued by Verve as a five-record boxed set in 1961. The box featured a beautiful cover painting of Broonzy by the great David Stone Martin, a foreword by Bill Randle, and individual printed sleeves with photos of Broonzy and a rather academic, sociological analysis of Broonzy and the blues. It’s a beautiful objet d’art. Verve was not known for high quality pressings but the records are fairly quiet and better than the average of early 60s LPs. At about the same time, Verve issued three individual LPs entitled Last Session Part 1, etc., which omitted Broonzy’s stories and only included the music from the sessions. The covers were generic, and the records I have heard were pressed on noisier vinyl than the box. The Bill Broonzy Story was never reissued on LP but Verve issued a 3 CD set in 1999. I’ve never heard it.

The Bill Broonzy Story was a pricey item in 1961 and blues and folk fans, generally, were not well heeled and accustomed to buying box sets. It was a poor seller and the set is hard to find today, especially with the box intact. Five clean records in an undamaged box sell for $100 +. Several multi record box sets have been issued by reissue labels recently and sold out quickly. Maybe, Acoustic Sounds will consider The Bill Broonzy Story for issue in their Verve series. Copyright 2022 All rights reserved by Joseph W. Washek

Tdiddey's picture

Bill along with Lonnie Johnson is one of the overlooked figures in 20th century music. Both were highly skilled musician/guitarists who in their later careers often simplified their music to accommodate the tastes of white folk revivalists. It's tragedy that Broonzy didn't live a number of years longer to benefit from the late 50's early 60's folk/blues revival.

wibaji5980's picture

It's remarkable how Bill Randle's personal admiration and cultural guilt complex led to preserving such a significant part of music history.

wedafim64's picture

That's an interesting insight into the last recordings of Bill Broonzy. | top drywall company in augusta

GinnyMiller's picture

Bill Broonzy's last recordings in July 1957 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago mark a poignant moment in music history. Despite battling lung cancer and facing the possibility of never being able to sing again after surgery, Broonzy's dedication to his craft and legacy remained unwavering. los angeles pool remodeling

edwardxblaire's picture

This is a gem that every blues enthusiast should discover. This collection showcases Broonzy's profound influence on the blues genre, blending his powerful voice with masterful guitar work. Manchester epoxy flooring company

rickluck90's picture

I just happened upon your blog and liked to comment that I have really enjoyed reading your entries. I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

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