Big Bill Broonzy: The Blues Ambassador

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 11.13.12 in Spotlights

Consider Big Bill Broonzy. Here’s a guy who wrote such blues standards as “Key to the Highway.” As a writer-producer-sessions player for ’30s blues A&R man Lester Melrose, he shaped the sound of blues in Chicago before there was a recognized Chicago blues style. He was one of the first bluesmen to be taken in by – and to shape his music for – white audiences, and he opened up the European market for postwar bluesmen. Yet today he’s little more than a footnote in blues history – almost a Zelig-like figure rather than a pioneer. What happened?

That’s the question Bob Riesman tackles in his biography I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, just published in paperback. He mainly discovers there’s no wholly satisfactory answer, but he unravels a complicated and revealing story along the way. And it’s one that needed to be told, because perhaps this book’s greatest revelation is that Big Bill’s own autobiography Big Bill Blues, William Broonzy’s Story, long billed as the first blues memoir, is in fact almost entirely made up, a grandiose job of self-mythologizing that makes the young Bob Dylan seem like an innocuous little tale-teller. Riesman goes to great lengths to show how, in doing so, Broonzy was consciously playing a sort of black Everyman, using his own stature to consolidate stories that told what life was like for African Americans of that time and place. Given Broonzy’s own propensity for writing songs either covertly or overtly about racial injustice, it’s a hard explanation to shoot down, but it may still leave you wondering.

After arriving in Chicago in the early ’20s, the man born Bradley Lee Conley in Arkansas dabbled in other work before committing to music. Working himself into the Melrose operations by 1929, he eventually became a Willie Dixon figure well before Willie Dixon did. Big Bill helped Melrose distinguish the real talent in Chicago, while writing witty and often ironic songs for those artists and serving as a session guitarist (though he was originally a fiddler) and more or less producing the records. He’d first appeared on disc (“Big Bill Blues” b/w “House Rent Stomp”) in 1928, and as the music evolved, he proved adaptable. He cut definitive hokum records with Tampa Red, Georgia Tom (Dorsey), Jazz Gillum and Washboard Sam (his half-brother). His first records under his own name (mistakenly printed as Broomsley) came out in 1930; his “I Can’t Be Satisfied” gave him his first hit. The so-called “Bluebird beat” (named after the RCA blues subsidiary label) adding trap drums and stand-up bass to blues guitar and/or piano was largely Broonzy’s creation. He worked with the kind of jazzy blues ensembles then developing in the cities, and when piano-guitar duets a la Leroy Carr-Scrapper Blackwell came into vogue, he picked up on those, too. His original, ragtimey guitar evolved into a more assertive, rawer, flat-picking style while retaining the pulsating bounce that had always propelled it. His vocals, notable for their clarity and smoothness, grew more anguished. Though most of his work for Melrose was released on Bluebird, his own records came out on ARC. And once the effects of the Depression had fully lifted, his solo career soared.

From 1934-42, he was one of the most popular country-rooted bluesmen in the nation. When John Hammond, planning his historic, 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, learned that Robert Johnson (the Delta bluesman he wanted) had recently died, he turned to Big Bill, who jolted the audience with his sardonic “Just a Dream” (“Dreamed I was in the White House/ Sittin’ in the president’s chair/ Dreamed he’s shakin’ my hand and said/ ‘Bill, I’m so glad you’re here.’”) He scored with traditional material like “C.C. Rider” and he wrote brilliant new stuff like the dirge “Key to the Highway” and the raunchy “I Feel So Good.” He became a sort of blues ambassador; when Muddy Waters first hit town, it was Broonzy who took him in and showed him the ropes, and Muddy later reciprocated with the tribute album Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill. And Broonzy kept on keeping up with the times. His 1945 “Where the Blues Began” and “Martha Blues” (with Big Maceo and Memphis Slim, respectively, on piano) provided a bridge to the postwar Chicago blues combo style.

In 1946, while still cutting records aimed at black fans, Broonzy began playing more for white audiences, and soon fell in with Win Stracke and Studs Terkel, who were creating the postwar Chicago folk movement. Taking a breather from Chicago and the blues circuit in 1950, Big Bill worked as a janitor at Iowa State, where he also performed to students so skillfully that in 1951 a white friend was able to land him his first European tour. While overseas he finally was able to record “Black, Brown and White,” his most enraged song about race relations; he’d been performing it for years but no American label would touch it. Back in the States later that year, he cut perhaps his final straight-up blues gem, the delightful “Hey, Hey.”

He returned to Europe several times, becoming a huge influence on the ’60s wave of British guitarists (Eric Clapton has cut a pair of Broonzy tunes and Ron Wood still swears by Bill’s “Guitar Shuffle,” while Pete Townsend, who wrote an appreciation for the Riesman book, and Ray Davies are among the others who sing his praises). In the USA, he was perhaps the only blues fixture on the folk circuit who didn’t have to be rediscovered. But his relevance to, and influence on, the black audience was waning just as Chicago blues was peaking. To the mass blues audience that followed in the ’60s, Big Bill Broonzy got lost in the shuffle – but there’s no reason he has to stay that way.