A Review of Robert Riesman, I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
[NOTE: 2011 was a very good year for Blues biographies: three reputable university presses published books about the “life and times” of four noted Blues men–Big Bill Broonzy; Son House; Mississippi John Hurt; and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Naturally, being “Retired But Not Shy”–and a Blues fan–I bought the biographies, and I hope to post reviews of them from time to time over the next few months.]
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So, I’ve got this image, a sort of Blues version of the Statue of Liberty: this statue stands, however, outside Union Station in Chicago, and, instead of “Lady Liberty,” it portrays the seated figure of a nattily-dressed Blues guitarist, Big Bill Broonzy. The caption is, “Bring me your poor, your tired, your hungry, and, especially, your Blues players, fleeing the Jim Crow South for the comparative freedom of the Windy City.” Broonzy made his exodus from the Mississippi Delta, headed for the “Promised Land” of Chicago, in the early 1920s, though under less dire circumstances than a number of his Blues-playing successors. Taking to heart a lesson learned early, of the importance of what we would now call “mentoring,” Big Bill was there, with advice and other forms of assistance, as one talented Blues man after another made his way by train to Chicago–Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, J.B. Lenoir, to mention a few.
For a historian trying to make sense of Big Bill and his contributions to the Blues, however, biographer Robert Riesman offers an early caveat: “Big Bill Broonzy was a tremendous storyteller, and his greatest invention may have been himself.” (5) For example, although Broonzy claimed he was born in 1893 in Mississippi as William Lee Broonzy, according to Riesman he was born William Lee Conley Bradley, in rural Arkansas, on June 26, 1903.
Likewise, Big Bill spun tall tales about his relatives, making them “characters in a larger story,” “a rich source of keen and wise observations about the world he grew up in.” (11) A supposedly influential uncle, Jerry Belcher, might not even have existed (19-20), for example. Moreover, despite Broonzy’s insistence that serving in the American army during World War I reinforced his view of the evils of the segregation he had experienced growing up in the Delta, Riesman argues that, if, as he believes, Broonzy was born in 1903, then he would have been fourteen, and much too young, to have served in Europe during the First World War. Still, Riesman contends, Broonzy’s stories about the war demonstrate “his skill at applying his first-rate imagination to the firsthand reports he had heard” of life in the segregated U.S. Army. (33) Even relating Big Bill’s marital adventures proves frustrating to Riesman, because each of his three marriages offers conflicting stories. As a result, his biographer concludes, “the consistent theme connecting the conflicting versions is Bill’s view of his life history as a collection of fluid possibilities instead of fixed events–and his talent for carrying off each reinvention.” (39-40)
Big Bill Broonzy had begun his musical career in the Delta with a fiddle, but, after he moved to Chicago, he took up the guitar and by 1928 had begun to record commercially. Whatever instruments he played, however, Big Bill realized that his parents considered them sinful. He told an interviewer that he “never brought his guitar into his parents’ home, out of respect for [his mother’s] wish that there be” no “sinful things done around the house.” (120)
Once he arrived in Chicago, Bill’s arrangement with white producer Lester Melrose brought him no satisfaction. He later complained bitterly that a Blues singer was “just a meal ticket for the man or woman who wears dollar-signs for eyes” (53), another bit of wisdom he could pass on to younger Blues men arriving in the “Promised Land” from the Jim Crow South. The thing about Big Bill Broonzy, though, was that he plotted his musical career pragmatically, making whatever adjustments were necessary to insure a continuous flow of income, which became another lesson he could teach aspiring Blues players who showed up at his door in Chicago.
As was the case with most recording artists, the Great Depression forced Broonzy to find other sources of income. By mid-1934, he had entered a new phase of his career: he became a “prolific songwriter” (85), he continued to record as “Big Bill,” but he was also in demand as a studio guitarist at recording sessions for other artists. Moreover, his work backing vocalist Lil Green demonstrated that he could “adapt to a new playing style, as well as to become comfortable with the different capabilities of an amplified guitar.” (103)
It was also during the 1930s when Big Bill realized that his music appealed to left-wing, white audiences interested in “folk music” and jazz, a realization that would carry him into the “Blues man as folk singer” camp even before that particular movement was cool. After World War II, Broonzy was more popular than ever with white audiences, aided by Pete Seger’s “People’s Songs” organization, by his participation in the clumsily-named “I Come for to Sing” group, and by Alan Lomax, who organized “The Midnight Special: A Series of American Folk-Music Concerts,” in New York City, with Broonzy as one of the performers. It was at one of these concerts that Big Bill unveiled his most famous “protest song,” “Black, Brown, and White Blues,” which met such a warm reception that it seemed to validate Broonzy’s decision “to appeal to white, politically liberal-to-left audiences.” (126)
As a follow-up to these concerts, Alan Lomax organized a session featuring Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and the first Sonny Boy Williamson that produced an epochal record, Blues in the Mississippi Night, which mixed songs by the trio; excerpts from Lomax’s collection of recordings made when he visited rural southern churches, work camps, and prisons; and alcohol-fueled recollections from Big Bill, Memphis, and Sonny Boy, alternately scarifying and hilarious, about the “birth” and meaning of the Blues. Yet, the weird thing about the album is that Alan Lomax was just as loose with the truth as Broonzy, so those who treasure the Blues in the Mississippi Night sessions for their insights into the origins of the Blues really don’t know exactly what to believe about some of the stories told by the participants or by Lomax in his liner notes and, later, in his fascinating book, The Land Where The Blues Began (New York, 1993).
Between 1945 and 1955, the Chicago Blues were transformed, and it was during this period that Big Bill fulfilled his role as mentor to newly-arrived Blues players from the Jim Crow South. Meanwhile, Broonzy was trying, successfully as it turned out, to break his ties with Lester Melrose and sign with Mercury Records, using Alan Lomax as intermediary. As Riesman notes, this struggle showed Big Bill “responding to his new challenges with pragmatism, using his best judgment to identify the most reliable and trustworthy people who were available to him.” (146)
Using an acquaintance he had met through the “I Come for to Sing” group, Broonzy also lined up a one-year job as a janitor at Iowa State College, purportedly so he could recover from the effects of heavy smoke in Blues clubs. A member of the English Department at the college encouraged Big Bill to begin to write down his stories. According to Riesman, Broonzy’s year-long sojourn in this overwhelmingly white world “laid much of the foundation for [Bill’s] professional success in the years that followed,” beginning with a European concert tour. (151) It also produced a published autobiography, Big Bill Blues (1955), as well as a posthumously released musical one, The Big Bill Broonzy Story (1961).
Yet, his first exposure to life in Europe did not push Big Bill in a new direction. Rather, he continued to straddle two worlds, recording and performing for both white European and Black American audiences. In an interview with Alan Lomax, Broonzy emphasized “the corrosive effects of racial prejudice by whites against blacks and the ways in which it continued to poison the lives of both blacks and whites.” (175)
In 1955, Big Bill recorded, for Chess Records, his final sessions aimed primarily at African American audiences (200), and he also opened a tavern in Chicago in partnership with Josephine Moore. By 1956, the ever-pragmatic Broonzy was trying his best to link the Blues with the rising phenomenon of rock ‘n’ roll, telling an interviewer that Elvis Presley was “singing blues now. . . . [W]hen I was a kid I used to hear them call it ‘rocking’ the blues–well, that’s what he’s doing now.” And Elvis returned the favor later, when he said that “I dug real low-down Mississippi singers, mostly Big Bill Broonzy and Big Boy Crudup.” (236)
Yet, within a year of his effort to bridge the gap between the Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Big Bill Broonzy was in desperate straits. An operation for lung cancer, in late 1957, left him with no voice. His friends rallied round him, staging a benefit concert early in 1958, but Big Bill died on August 15 of that year. He was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Illinois, on August 19, 1958. Among the terrific illustrations in Riesman’s biography is one of Broonzy’s funeral, showing a number of noted Blues men as pallbearers, including Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Sunnyland Slim, and Otis Spann, literally supporting their mentor at the end of his life as he had supported them at the beginning of their careers.
Big Bill Broonzy is not recognized today as a particularly influential Blues man, at least as far as his music is concerned. And yet, without his dedicated work as an honest broker and mentor, any number of those who are considered Blues legends might not have made the transition from the Delta to Chicago–and beyond. Big Bill did what he could–which was considerable–to help younger performers adapt to life in the Windy City, yet, in the process, his own contributions to the Blues tended to fade into the background. Thus, it was interesting that, on January 20, 2009, at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, The Reverend Joseph Lowery, trying to explain the significance of the day, came close to quoting verbatim the words from Broonzy’s anthem, “Black, Brown, and White Blues,” as Riesman astutely notes. (254-255)
Now if you’re white, you’re all right
If you’re brown, stick around,
But if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.
Broonzy was lucky in his friends, because over the years he hooked up with a number of influential figures who compiled their own private collections of letters, interviews, even films featuring Big Bill. Bill also was fortunate in his biographer, for Robert Riesman seems to have run down virtually every available document, radio or television interview, and visual record of Broonzy’s performances, and he makes very good use of those sources. While the verdict is perhaps still out about the importance of Big Bill Broonzy in the history of the Blues, it seems clear that, in Robert Riesman, he has found a first-rate biographer.
Big Bill Broonzy, Good Time Tonight. Columbia, 1990 (CK 46219).
Broonzy, “Good Boy.” Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey. Document Records, 2001 (DOCD-32-20-2).
Broonzy, “Unemployment Stomp”; “In the Army Now.” News and the Blues: Telling It Like It Is. Columbia, 1990 (CK 46217).
Broonzy, “Spreading Snake Blues.” Legends of the Blues, Volume One. Columbia, 1990 (CK 46215).
Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sunny Boy Williamson, Blues in the Mississippi Night. Rykodisc, 1990 (RCD 90155).
Broonzy, “Black, Brown & White.” Defiance Blues. Platinum Entertainment, 1998 (51416 1340 2).
Broonzy, “How You Want It Done?”; “Getting Older Every Day.” Great Blues Guitarists: String Dazzlers. Columbia, 1991 (CK 47060).
Broonzy, “Mississippi River Blues.” Walk Right In: The Secret History of Rock & Roll. Bluebird, 2002 (09026-63986-2).
Broonzy, “Keep Your Hands Off Her.” That’s Chicago’s South Side: The Secret History of Rock & Roll. Bluebird, 2002 (09026-63988-2).
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: