Birth of the Blues - Big Bill Broonzy

By Ben A Martin 

"Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don't live it, you don't have it. Young people have forgotten to cry the blues..."
Big Bill Broonzy

For a time during the 1930's, Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most popular and most prolific blues guitar musicians in America. He held copy writes to over 300 tunes during his career, appeared as a sideman on hundreds of other artists recordings and was one of the first African-American artists to make a successful crossover to white audiences. In other words, Big Bill Broonzy was one of the originators of the blues and he was instrumental in making the blues a genuine and viable musical genre.

But even more than that, Broonzy helped provide the vital link between the rough and raw Delta blues tradition to the more urban evolution of the Chicago blues which, has been shown countless times, was pivotal in the creation of 'rock and roll' a few decades further down the road.

William Lee Conley Broonzy was born June 26th, 1893 (at least according to Broonzy) in Scott, Mississippi, quite literally on the banks of the Mississippi river. He was one of 17 children born to his sharecropper parents, Frank Broonzy and Mitte Belcher, both whom had been born into slavery. Although Broonzy claimed the year of his birth as 1893, years after his death, his twin sister produced her birth certificate showing that they were actually born in 1897. Like so many others of the time, Broonzy's family tried to scratch a living out of the hard earth as share croppers, a brutal life of barely securing sustenance for their large families. And when they did have a good year for crops, the arrangements that they had made with the land owners left them barely able to survive. It was a nomadic existence, forcing the families from one plot of land to another in hopes of making a better life each time.

While still a young child, the Broonzy family relocated to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the place Bill always called his hometown. While he was still a child, Broonzy, with the help of his Uncle Jerry Belcher, fashioned his first instrument, a fiddle, out of an old cigar box. Over time, his uncle taught him a handful of spirituals and folk songs. Broonzy and his friend Louis Carter, who played a homemade guitar, began playing local churches and social gatherings. This was back during the time when social functions had '2 stages' where African-Americans would dance on one side and whites would dance on the other while the musicians sat between the two groups to play.

At 17 Bill had married and had begun working his own land as a share-cropper. During this time Broonzy had decided to give up the fiddle and opted to become a preacher. At one point, as the story goes, someone offered Bill $50 and a new fiddle to play a local party. Bill was all set to decline the offer when he discovered that his wife had already accepted and spent the money forcing Bill to play the gig.

After a drought in 1916 wiped out his crops, Bill decided to try his hand at coal mining which he continued to do until he drafted into the Army in 1917. He served two years fighting in the Europe during WW1 and returned to Little Rock, Arkansas upon his discharge. When he returned home Broonzy found that he had lost his taste for farming and began to play local clubs around the area to support himself and his family. And like so many after him, Broonzy travelled the 'blues highway' from the Delta to Chicago seeking opportunity. When Broonzy had finally settled in Chicago, he hooked up with veteran medicine show entertainer Poppa Charlie Jackson who taught him the rudiments of blues guitar.

Throughout the 1920's, Broonzy worked a variety of odd jobs to supplement his income, everything from being a Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and janitor. But he continued to stay close to music, playing rent parties and other social gatherings. His playing improved without any guitar lessons, and he began to gain a bit of a reputation amongst the fledgling blues scene.

Through his association with Jackson (who had begun to record for Paramount in 1924), Broonzy secured an audition for Paramount executive J. Mayo Williams. However his initial recordings were stiff and not well received. Paramount declined the initial offerings. But Broonzy was not put off and a few months later tried again. His first recording, 'Big Bill's Blues' was finally released in 1927.The record did not do well with the public but Paramount kept Broonzy in their stable. Despite releasing several more titles for Paramount, Broonzy's records never caught on. Little did anyone know, the records would go on to be popular blues guitar lessons for people learning blues guitar.

He moved labels, trying his luck with a producer named Larry Melrose who was producing records for the Champion and Gennett labels. A few of the titles released under Melrose again failed to make much of a mark. But in 1932, Broonzy left Chicago for New York where he began to record for the American Recording Company. The New York recordings sold much better and Broonzy's fame began to grow. Back home in Chicago Bill began to work the larger clubs even going on tour with Memphis Minnie.

In 1934, Broonzy made the switch to Bluebird Records and his career found the legs that it had been missing. He began to incorporate a more rhythm and blues sound adding a pianist, a drummer, an acoustic bass as well as a harmonica or a piece of two of brass to the sound. In 1938, Broonzy again jumped labels, this time he ended up on Vocalion. By this time Big Bill Broonzy had become one of the most popular and most prolific of the blues artists in Chicago. Along with his own amazing output, Broonzy appeared on hundreds of other tracks as a sideman as well as being credited as having written literally hundreds of other songs for other artists. But due to his contract issues with various labels, Broonzy was always careful to only being credited on those tracks as 'composer'.

In 1939, producer John Hammond Sr. asked him to take the spot that had reserved for Robert Johnson at the now famous Spirituals to Swing Concert that Hammond had arranged at Carnegie Hall. (Hammond had wanted Robert Johnson originally but was unaware that Johnson was dead until he went South seeking out the legendary performer He had wanted Johnson to perform what had called primitive blues). The following year Broonzy appeared alongside Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong in the George Selves film Swingin' The Dream.

Interestingly, despite his success as a musician, Broonzy never made much money from music and still had to work odd jobs to survive. During the 40's Broonzy continued to record steadily. It was during this period that Bill wrote his best known song, 'Key to the Highway', a blues classic that continues to be performed and recorded the world over by just about every blues band worth their salt.

By the time the 1950's arrived, Broonzy's career had virtually come to a standstill. A new breed of blues guitar music had emerged from Chicago, a more electrified blues that left some of the older blues musician on the outside. Oddly enough a lot of the young guns who were taking his place were the same ones that Broonzy and other veterans like Tampa Red had taken under their wings when they first arrived in Chicago. Players like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and even B.B, King owed him a debt but in the end began to eclipse the man who had a hand in creating the genre.

Broonzy had joined up with a touring folk revival called 'I Come To Sing' which included writer Studs Terkel. The group was the brain child of Chicago folk artist Win Stracke.With the on-going folk revival movement, the group caught some attention, playing to enthusiastic crowds on college campuses around the country. This attention brought Bill an invitation to tour Europe in the early 50's.

When Bill hit Europe, he was greeted with standing ovations and the accolades that he had missed in his own country. By the time he returned to the United States, Big Bill Broonzy was a bona fide star. He found his way onto tours with acts like Peter Seeger, Ledbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Broonzy had finally reached the point where he could live comfortably as a musician, touring steadily and cashing in on the initial blues / folk circuit. His new found fame also brought Bill invitations to a variety of television and radio programs as well as continued touring over-seas including dates in Africa, South America and the Pacific rim.

While staying briefly in Holland during the European tour, Bill fell for a young woman by the name of Pim van Isveldt. Together they had a son, Michael, who still lives in Amsterdam. The good times, although well deserved, did not last long. Broonzy died on August 15th, 1958 in an ambulance on the way to the hospital from complications from throat cancer.

Big Bill Broonzy, never a flashy electric guitarist, was rarely covered by many of the blues rock bands that appeared in the 60's and early 70's but his influence is undeniable. He was a spectacular acoustic guitarist and his warm and fluid style influenced players a varied as Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim and Ray Davies of The Kinks. Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood was quoted as saying in a 2007 Q Magazine article as saying that Broonzy's 'Guitar Shuffle' as his favorite piece of guitar music. "It was one of the first tracks I learned to play, but even to this day I can't play it exactly right."

Once during a interview in his later years, a writer asked him what he thought about Elvis Presley. Broonzy paused for a second and then said "I like what he's doing. He's rockin' the blues, that's all he's doing....Rock and Roll is here to stay because it comes from natural people. Rock and Roll is a natural steal from the blues and the blues'll never die."

Big Bill Broonzy was a blues guitar immortal, one of the early giants who left his fingerprints all over the blues and yet as time has a way of doing, he has been relegated to the back pages of the blues history books, even though his music has practically become blues guitar lessons for many guitarrists. But make no mistake, Big Bill was one of the founders and he helped get the wheel rolling. And that wheel still rolls right on down the highway.
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