(Photo credit: Copyright Terry Cryer; used with permission)
The Blues Singer Guitarist Big Bill Broonzy (born William Lee Conley Broonzy) has long been a favourite of mine.
His style was very distinctive. He would sometimes use a basic, fundamental guitar accompaniment, occasionally highlighted by stark, single string solos, and forceful chording. More than any Guitarist of his time, he made effective use of silence as a dramatic and contrasting component of his music. He was also an unqualified master of many guitar styles of the period. ‘Ragtime’, ‘Blues Fingerstyle’ picking, and a ‘flat-picking’ style echoing country influences; all these found a place in his repertoire.
His singing voice retained a flavour of the countryside. In addition to his clear diction, his voice could be smooth and optimistic, or a world-weary moan able to deliver a plaintive cry. His songs focus on the troubles of big city life, social inequities and, of course, hard times with women. He was a prolific composer. At his death in 1958, over 300 songs had been copyrighted in his name.
Bill explains about song writing: “I write it from experience, from things that I have experienced and things that I did in life, and the way I think of things in life, and what has happened in my lifetime. ‘Cause you can take anything and write a blues about it. You can take a chair, a box, an axe, anything, a knife, anything and start writing a blues from it. ‘Cause you can think of the different things you would do with a knife. Take a knife – …you could maybe skin a fish, cut a chicken’s throat, skim your toenails or your fingernails, then you could kill somebody with it too. By the time you think of all the things you could do with a knife, then you got the blues. It don’t take but five verses to make a blues. Think of five things you can do with something and that’s it. Think of five things that woman done to you and then you got the blues. Was it she stayed out all night or she stole away your money, or was it she didn’t fix your food right or something? ……all that.”
Bill’s Father and Mother were both born into slavery, and Bill was one of their seventeen children. It’s not clearly recorded when or where he was born, but one record says he was born in Scott Mississippi, on the 26th of June 1893 (another record says 1898 and yet another says 1901).
His first instrument was a ‘fiddle’ (violin) that he fashioned from a cigar box, which he learned to play with some tuition from his uncle. The family moved from Mississippi to Pine Bluff Arkansas as sharecroppers, where young Bill (14 years old maybe) worked as a ‘violinist’ in local churches, and for tips as a ‘country fiddler’ at local parties and picnics, while at the same time working as a farm hand.
Between 1912 and 1917, Bill worked as an itinerant preacher in and around Pine Bluff, and from 1918 to 1919 Bill served in the US army during World War I. After completing his tour of duty, he returned back to Arkansas and all the racism that was happening in the South, and decided that farming was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He wanted to make his living as a guitar player and singer, and in 1924, Broonzy moved to Chicago to start his music career.
Under the guidance of ‘Papa’ Charlie Jackson, Broonzy learned how to play the guitar. Jackson was a very versatile and accomplished player on the six-string banjo-guitar, and was adept at all styles of playing. Whether he was ‘strumming’ or ‘finger-picking’, his music was always of interest for its structure, content, and execution. You can clearly hear his influences in Bill’s guitar style. While trying to make it in the music business, Bill had to fit in often menial work at a number of ‘day jobs’, including stints as a janitor and a maintenance man.
In 1938 Broonzy filled in for Robert Johnson, (another great country blues man) who had died unexpectedly, at the ‘Spirituals to Swing Concert’ produced by John Hammond at Carnegie Hall. The fame achieved from this event, and a follow-up concert in 1939, established Broonzy as a key figure in the ‘Chicago Blues’ scene. While in Chicago, Broonzy recorded around two hundred and sixty songs, and remained a popular and well-respected artist throughout the 1940s.
Influenced by musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Son House, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Broonzy developed an amalgamated form of the blues. By combining ‘ragtime’ and ‘hokum‘ blues with ‘country’ blues, he created a style that foreshadowed the post World War II Chicago sound, which was later defined by such artists as Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
With the rise of electric blues in the early 1950s, Broonzy became an active supporter of the folk blues genre. In 1951 Broonzy took his first tour of Europe, where he was met with enthusiasm and appreciation. His appearances in Europe introduced the blues to European audiences, and were especially influential in London’s emerging ‘skiffle’ and ‘rock blues’ scene. Broonzy’s success also set the stage for later blues artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II and Muddy Waters to play European venues. Broonzy toured Europe again in 1955 and 1957.
Broonzy’s autobiography ‘Big Bill Blues’ was published with the aid of Danish writer Yannick Bruynoghe in 1955. Shortly after his final tour in 1957, Broonzy was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer. Incredibly, he continued to perform until his death on August 14, 1958, in Chicago. He is buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. Broonzy was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980.
‘Key to the Highway’ MP3 by Big Bill Broonzy