Ostensibly a Chicago bluesman steeped in the southern traditions of Jefferson County, Arkansas, William “Big Bill” Broonzy’s recordings stretch genres—from folk music to hokum, ragtime to country. His life and legacy are equally wide-reaching. He toured Europe, fell in love with a Dutch woman, and masterminded recordings that would inspire The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the 2009 inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama. In the intervening years, Broonzy also became a master crowd pleaser, whose compassion and appeal to white and black audiences functioned as a heart to the Chicago music scene. In 1955, he compiled an autobiography that recounted his inspirations—an uncle named Jerry, a dubiously friendly white man—his childhood with twenty-one siblings, and his time serving in World War I. The only problem was, none of it was true.
In his recent biography “I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy,” Bob Riesman uncovers the reality behind the constructed life of the master showman. In an interview with Newcity, Riesman built a list of some of Broonzy’s most enduring works, and used them to talk about the bluesman’s legacy.
I Feel So Good
One of the things that struck me about Bill as you present him in the biography is his compassion and generosity. Do you think there’s a layer of that in “I Feel So Good”?
Often the perception of blues by people who might be less familiar with it is that it’s focused on topics and subjects that are gloomy—there’s foreboding, there’s anguish, there’s despair, and that is often a dominant theme in the blues. I think those aspects are very much there in some of the most superb blues that have been performed, but they aren’t restricted to that. “I Feel So Good” is a good example of the breadth of human expression that Bill put into his songwriting and his other creative work, that demonstrates that both his imaginative powers and the range of human emotions the blues can be used to express. There’s an exuberance in this song that I find just delightful.
There was an interesting turn in the book, where after Bill’s death, some people, I think in Europe especially, began to criticize him for being too much of a showman or a crowd pleaser, and lacking the authenticity of some of his contemporaries. Could someone find that in this song?
He recorded this at a time when he was one of the leading figures, the most dominant figures in the blues world, not just in Chicago, but nationally. And that was reflected in the frequency with which he was recording, both as a performer and a sideman. He was someone for whom the audience of blues records—called race records—primarily African-American, was instantly identifiable from his voice, his guitar playing. The year after he died in 1958, “I Feel So Good” was one of the songs that Muddy Waters recorded in one of the first blues tribute albums “Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill.” So Bill’s status in the blues world even in the years after his death was not diminished.
It is true to say that his star did wane in the years following that, and there were a variety of factors that contributed to that, and in some ways it’s quite ironic, because a set of forces that he had a large hand in setting in motion carried quite a few blues musicians to a level of prominence that they hadn’t had before. A set of white blues fans, inspired by the recent interest in blues in the late fifties and into the sixties, went looking for and located several of Bill’s contemporaries who had not recorded since the 1920s and 1930s. So people like Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt had an opportunity to come and play at places like the University of Chicago Folk Festival and record. They got a level of prominence that they completely deserved, but unfortunately for Bill, he just wasn’t there to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities.
Just a Dream
This song seems to be equated with a fairly symbolic event in Bill’s career in the book.
He first performed “Just A Dream” in this turning point opportunity in his career in 1938 at the “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. The writer and promoter John Hammond had organized this concert to present the diversity and vitality of a set of African-American music styles to a set of predominantly white New York audience. Bill stood out in front of the most prestigious concert venue in America, Carnegie Hall, and that’s where he debuted the song. He found that with his voice, with his guitar playing, with his songwriting and with his charismatic presence, he could win over an audience unlike any he had performed for. He was performing with an acoustic guitar on stage, and it was that knowledge that he could do that, that equipped him in the late 1940s and into the fifties, to shift his repertoire when he saw that tastes were changing and to gear his performances more toward white audiences in the US and overseas.
Do you think that there’s anything specific to the content of “Just a Dream” that made it such a well-received hit with white audiences? You talk about it in the book as kind of a means of building a rapport in the first white concert.
It’s a wonderful sequence. Where Bill takes the audience is where nobody had taken an audience before, which is an African-American musician standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall, imagining an African American in the Oval Office. And, then with Bill’s storytelling powers, he sets it up so he dreams he was sitting in the office sitting in the president’s chair, and then [the president] shook [Bill’s] hand and said “Bill I’m glad you’re here.” But then he puts in the twist, which is “But it was just a dream, just a dream I had on my mind.” So I think he tapped into a set of factors, both quite an imaginative commentary on race for 1938, and at the same time, a very human experience that is universal, where we all wish for things or imagine ourselves in some exalted place, or a place we deeply wish to be, and then for whatever reason we’re disappointed. So I think it was his ability to put all of these strands together, and present it, as the terrific storyteller that he was, and that’s what really grabbed them. [In the recording] you can hear the audience’s reaction. He just got waves of laughter and waves of applause.
We discussed Big Bill’s crossover from performing for an African-American audience to a predominantly white one. That short documentary of Bill, “Low Light and Blue Smoke” seems like such a concentrated venue for him to appeal to exactly that audience.
This was made by the Belgian couple Yannick and Margo Bruynoghe who befriended Bill and who served as his managers for a time…They wanted to create a documentary record of Bill performing. It was filmed in the mid-fifties, and it was shown on British TV. The impact it had on a set of British teenagers in the 1950s was enormous. TV was a new format, these were teenagers in their twelve, thirteen, fourteen age range, and this was just the first exposure that most of them had had to a blues musician. What Eric Clapton said was, the music alone would have been tremendously captivating, but to see Bill as this solo bluesman, cigarette smoke curling around him, under a bare lightbulb, just him and his guitar—Clapton said it was like looking into heaven. Ray Davies said it was one of the seminal video clips in the documentary style. So his musicianship was presented, but there was the whole visual beyond that, which had a tremendously galvanizing effect.
Key to the Highway
What made you choose “Key to the Highway”?
He co-wrote it. A musician he had known named Charlie Segar wrote it with him. It has come to be associated with him over the years. The identification with him has been reinforced by the number of musicians with a connection to Bill that recorded it. Little Walter’s version for Chess came only months after Bill’s passing, and he was one of many blues artists in Chicago who had identified Bill as a mentor. But the range of musicians outside of what necessarily need be identified as blues musicians who have recorded this song is noteworthy—people of the caliber of Dinah Washington and Jimmy Witherspoon. It clearly had become a well-known song in the African-American recording community. And then, when Eric Clapton and Duane Allman recorded it under the Derek and the Dominos sessions in 1970, that put it squarely in the repertoire of blues rock bands for decades to come.
Black, White and Brown Blues
You make a point of making reference to the allusion—intentional or unintentional—that was made to the song’s chorus during Obama’s inauguration at the end of the book. Why did you think this song was an important note to end on?
“Black, Brown and White Blues” is a terrific example of Bill’s songwriting. It presents a series of vignettes in which he experiences racial prejudice in a number of settings. Again, he has this tremendously concise way of conveying a particular scene in a way an audience can relate to. And it has this really catchy chorus: “If you’re white you’re alright, if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re black whoa brother get back.” It was really as much of an anthem as anything he ever wrote. It was also a known song, it was something that was sung in the years before the civil rights movement really attained the critical mass it gained in the 1950s and into the 1960s. I think it does demonstrate Bill’s willingness to speak out against racial prejudice—to stand up in the town hall in New York City and sing about that. This in a period when this was not without risks for a performer, particularly an African-American performer.
You discuss one recording in particular that Bill made in which he speaks in an astoundingly frank way about race. I was wondering if you feel like he was a performer who ever shuttered himself for the sake of the audience.
My view of Bill is that he was a pragmatist. My judgement is that he did a skillful job of walking a fairly narrow line, particularly in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, with the rise of McCarthyism, and the rise of anti-communism, and the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had seen that Josh White, who was someone who had a lot of visibility and tremendous talent as a folk singer and a blues singer, in some ways playing to a very similar audience to Bill, had wound up testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and having that be a tremendously unhappy experience for Josh White. I think what Bill did was be mindful of the settings in which he would choose to be more outspoken. For example, he had performed “Black, White and Brown Blues,” in America in the forties, but the first time he recorded it was in France during a tour in 1951. I think what he was doing is he wanted to go record with his artistic expressions in objection to racial prejudice and at the same time just be mindful of not jeopardizing his ability to make a living as a working musician.
This is an instrumental number, right?
It’s mostly instrumental. What Eric Clapton had noted is the version he really loved of this song is one that was recorded in Chicago for Mercury in 1951. In the sessions at Mercury he does a series of songs which are mostly solo acoustic. What Eric Clapton identified with the session at “Hey, Hey,” is that it’s just his guitar, and you can hear Big Bill’s foot keeping time on the floor. So it’s this stripped-down version that Eric Clapton says—that what was inspirational—was it’s just Bill, just his ability with his singing and guitar playing. He’s his own rhythm section, and he’s able to put across the song so compellingly.
The other thing about “Hey, Hey” was I was told a story by one of Bill’s grandnieces in Arkansas… Bill would drive down, and they would perform with a big dinner and eat and drink. Then, he would get out his guitar. Her recollection is, when he would play “Hey, Hey,” everyone would be up and jitterbugging. To me, it’s a rare and precious window into Big Bill, not only the musician, but also Big Bill as part of a family.
Could you talk about Bill’s technique in this song?
Bill’s origins as a musician play an important role here. Bill’s first instrument was a fiddle—he described it as a corn stalk fiddle. After that he played a cigar box fiddle, and then a more conventional fiddle after that. That reflected the fact that he grew up in an economically poor, but culturally rich community, where music played an important role. His training as a musician was in a black string band. What that meant was, Bill’s formative experience was being a working musician who could play music that people could dance to. He had two different roles. As the fiddle player, there were times the spotlight would shine on him, and he’d play the virtuoso. At other times, he’d have to step back and play behind other musicians who’d be showcased. What he had all the way through his career, is his time was terrific. It was rock solid. He also had the ability to make other people sound more like themselves.
In “Hey, Hey,” what you get is that driving, pulsing force that is characteristic of him, and some of that is likely traceable back to his origins in a black string band, and part of it likely comes from a style he evolved for himself through all of his years of performing and of practicing. For him to have been as versatile as he was, he had to have been tremendously disciplined, because he was able to change his style both consistently and successfully numerous times over the course of this thirty-year career.
“I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy”
By Bob Riesman
University of Chicago Press, 324 pages, $27.50.