Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Legend of Big Bill Broonzy

Shame on me and shame on The Weight for failing to ever pay homage to this hero of a man -- a man whose life & times is as mythical as his musical legacy.   Let me share a little of Broonzy's story:

(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Born William Lee Conley Broonzy, "Big Bill" was one of Frank Broonzy and Mittie Belcher's 17 children. His birth site and date are disputed...He began playing music at an early age. At the age of 10 he made himself a fiddle from a cigar box and learned how to play spirituals and folk songs from his uncle, Jerry Belcher... In 1915, 17-year-old Broonzy was married and working his own land as a sharecropper. He had decided to give up the fiddle and become a preacher. There is a story that he was offered $50 and a new violin if he would play four days at a local venue. Before he could respond to the offer, his wife took the money and spent it, so he had to play. 

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In 1916 his crop and stock were wiped out by drought. Broonzy went to work locally until he was drafted into the Army in 1917.  Broonzy served two years in Europe during the first world war. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, Broonzy returned to Pine Bluff, Arkansas where he is reported to have been called a racial epithet and told by a white man he knew before the war that he needed to "hurry up and get his soldier uniform off and put on some overalls." He immediately left Pine Bluff and moved to the Little Rock area but a year later in 1920 moved north to Chicago in search of opportunity...

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After arriving in Chicago, Broonzy made the switch to guitar. He learned guitar from minstrel and medicine show Papa Charlie Jackson veteran , who began recording for Paramount Records in 1924.  Through the 1920s Broonzy worked a string of odd jobs, including Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and custodian, to supplement his income, but his main interest was music. He played regularly at rent parties and social gatherings, steadily improving his guitar playing. During this time he wrote one of his signature tunes, a solo guitar piece called "Saturday Night Rub."

In 1930 Paramount for the first time used Broonzy's full name on a recording, "Station Blues" — albeit misspelled as "Big Bill Broomsley". Record sales continued to be poor, and Broonzy was working at a grocery store...In March 1932 he traveled to New York City and began recording for the American Record Corporation on their line of less expensive labels: (Melotone, Perfect Records, et al.).  These recordings sold better and Broonzy began to become better known. Back in Chicago he was working regularly in South Side clubs, and even toured with Memphis Minnie...In 1934 Broonzy moved to Bluebird Records and began recording with pianist Bob "Black Bob" Call. His fortunes soon improved. 

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Broonzy expanded his work during this period as he honed his song writing skills which showed a knack for appealing to his more sophisticated city audience as well as people that shared his country roots. His work in this period shows he performed across a wider musical spectrum than almost any other bluesman before or since including ragtime, hokum blues, country blues, city blues, jazz tinged songs, folk songs and spirituals. After World War II, Broonzy recorded songs that were the bridge that allowed many younger musicians to cross over to the future of the blues: the electric blues of post war Chicago.

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In Europe, Broonzy was greeted with standing ovations and critical praise wherever he played. The tour marked a turning point in his fortunes, and when he returned to the United States he was a featured act with many prominent folk artists such as Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Leadbelly. From 1953 on his financial position became more secure and he was able to live quite well on his music earnings. Broonzy returned to his solo folk-blues roots, and travelled and recorded extensively...In 1953, Dr. Vera (King) Morkovin and Studs Terkel took Broonzy to Circle Pines Center, a cooperative year-round camp in Hastings, Michigan, where he was employed as the summer camp cook. He worked there in the summer from '53-'56.  On July 4, 1954, Pete Seeger traveled to Circle Pines and gave a concert with Bill on the farmhouse lawn, which was recorded by Seeger for the new fine arts radio station in Chicago, WFMT-FM...

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By 1958 Broonzy was suffering from the effects of throat cancer. He died August 15, 1958, and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Illinois.
{wiping the tears from my eyes so I can continue writing}

One of 17 children? Minstrel and Medicine Shows? Fiddles made from cigar boxes?  A sharecropper?  WWI veteran?  Pullman porter? Was working as a cook at a summer camp where Pete Seeger visited only to play a show with him?  How is there not a national holiday celebrated in honor of this man?  Or an Academy Award-winning film about his life?   Or a widespread revival of his music?  His story and achievements are simply epic.  No doubt a musical journey even Dylan wishes he could claim for himself.  Big Bill Broonzy, The Weight salutes you!

Below is an astonishing clip of Broonzy performing "When Did You Leave Heaven."  The footage, shot in noir-type fashion, I promise will send shivers down your spine.

Big Bill Broonzy, "When Did You Leave Heaven"  (date and source unknown)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

beautifully shot. way ahead of its time. very smooth.

great post.