|Big Bill Broonzy, early Chicago years.|
In legend the blues arose from the morning mists of the Mississippi Delta and the sweat steaming from mules and field hands. Mix ancestral African rhythms, call and response field chants, and snatches of fiddle tunes. Ask a musicologist and he will explain it all to you in numbing technical detail. And about how from the cotton docks at New Orleans, Natchez, and Memphis it was turned over and over by whore house piano players, horn playing funeral bands, and juke joint warblers and out popped rag time and jazz.
What we think of as the blues today—guitar driven and raw was undoubtedly played on front porches and at Saturday night dances all along even as its cousins came to dominate popular music. But scant evidence of it exists. Even the companies that specialized in recording race music seldom ventured into the back country where it was being played. A handful of records from the 1920’s.
But in the 1930’s performers like the legendary Robert Johnson and the ex-con from Texas Huddie Ledbetter a/k/a Leadbelly rose to fame, selling country blues sides to the folks back home, and being adopted by certain white urban audiences. Few performers were more influential, or more versatile in the rapidly evolving form than Big Bill Broonzy.
Lee Conley Bradley was one of a 17 child brood of sharecroppers Frank Broonzy (Bradley) and Mittie Belcher. He celebrated his birthday on June 26, but that might have been as early as 1893 or as late as 1903. He thought he came to light in Scott, Mississippi but it may actually have been in Lake Dick, Arkansas. The confusion arose from fuzzy memories and the fact that in the Jim Crow South, now that Blacks were no longer valuable property, nobody much bothered to keep track of their breeding, birthing, and dieing.
He grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where he took a shine to music at an early age. At ten years old he was playing a cigar box fiddle learning spirituals and folk songs from his uncle Jerry Belcher. Before long he and a guitar playing pal, Louis Carter were playing at local picnics, dances, and church socials.
By 1915 he was a man of some responsibilities. He was married and sharecropping on his own. He determined to rise in the world by giving up music and becoming a preacher. He sold his old fiddle. But according to one story a man came to his home while he was away and offered his wife $50 and a new fiddle if Broonzy would play a four day camp meeting. That kind of hard cash was hard to come by. She took the cash and spent it before her husband could say no. Then in 1916 a drought wiped out his crop and Broonzy had to go back to playing to make a living.
Then, before he could get his feet on the ground, Broonzy was drafted in 1917. Before he knew what was happening he was a Doughboy in France. Stepping off the train in Pine Bluff after his discharge in 1919 Broonzy was not greeted by a victory parade, but by an angry White man who warned him menacingly to “get his soldier uniform off and put on some overalls.” Former Black soldiers made the local whites nervous—they knew how to shoot. It was a dangerous situation. Men were lynched on slender excuses to “send a message to uppity niggers.”
Broonzy decided it was time to get out. He and his wife moved first to Little Rock and then in 1920 joined the Great Migration to Chicago.
In the big city he did find work. During the decade he was by turns a Pullman Porter, cook, foundry man, and janitor. But he quickly saw the promise of making a living a musician. But to do that, he had to abandon his fiddle, an instrument that carried the stigma of hardscrabble South blacks had fled. He had to take up an instrument he had never played—the guitar.
Broonzy found a mentor, Papa Charlie Jackson, a veteran of the old minstrel and medicine show circuits who taught him his way around a six-string. He was a fast learner and the two were soon playing rent parities and clubs on weekends.
He was fortunate to be in Chicago, a city where record companies set up hotel room studios to record for their race record divisions. In 1924 Jackson began to record for Paramount, bringing Broonzy along as a side-man. In 1927 Paramount executive Jay Mayo “Ink” Williams, who had also come from Pine Bluff and had played football in the infant NFL before becoming the most successful producer of race records of his era.
Broonzy’s first release was Big Bill’s Blues on one side and House Rent Stomp on the other, both original compositions. The record was moderately successful and followed by several more. The early recordings were released under the name Big Bill and Thomp for sideman and singer John Thomas. It was not until 1930 that a record was released under his own name, although it was misspelled Big Bill Broomsley.
A mid-list artist, Broonzy was dropped by Paramount in Depression era belt tightening. He was working in a grocery store when and may still have been under contract to his first label when he recorded sides for the Perfect label as The Famous Hockum Boys and Sammy Sampson later in 1930. Lester Melrose released more sides in 1931 under the name Big Bill Johnson. Both his guitar work and his singing had improved and these records sold better than his Paramount sides. Even under the aliases they helped him get more work around the city.
They also led to sessions in New York City in 1932 on the race record labels of the American Record Company (ARC). These sold even better and led to gigs at nightclubs, theaters, and dancehalls in the Windy City—a big step up from rent parties and blind pig speakeasies. He was soon established enough to tour with a genuine star—Memphis Minnie.
All of this time he had been writing, playing, and recording essentially country blues, albeit with urbanized lyrics. But when he was signed to the flagship label of race music, Bluebird, Broonzy began to stretch out. Partnering first with piano player Bob “Black Bob” Call he began to develop what would become known as a rhythm and blues—R&B—style with sides recorded in 1934. In 1937 he was fronting a small combo with pianist Joshua Altheimer, drums, double bass, harmonica and occasionally even horns for sessions. He was inventing the prototype for the modern blues band. Also recording for ARC’s Melotone label and Brunswick’s Vocalion labels records released in this period included such classics as C.C. Rider and The Midnight Special.
In 1938 he made the first ever commercial recordings with an electric guitar, played by George Barnes on two sides for Vocalion, New Shake ‘em Down and Night Time is the Right Time No.2.
The same year Broonzy was first introduced to white audiences when he was called to replace Delta bluesman Robert Johnson who had suddenly died at age 27 in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. He was invited back for a second instalment in 1939. These appearances introduced him to folk music figures who would later figure prominently in his career.
Broonzy was now a star, one of the biggest names in the blues. That helped him get a part in the 1939 Broadway production of , Gilbert Seldess jazz adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in 1890 New Orleans and featuring Louis Armstrong as Bottom, Maxine Sullivan as Titania, and the Benny Goodman Sextet.
Now partnering regularly with his half-brother Washboard Sam (Robert Brown) one of the best blues singers working, Broonzy was also busy back in Chicago. He wrote songs for Washboard Sam’s recordings as well as for Jazz Gillum, and Tampa Red, and others. He usually sat in as a guitarist but was uncredited as a musician due to conflicts with his own label.
In his long career Broonzy copyrighted more than 300 songs, many of them blues standards.
During the ‘40s Broonzy continued to record successfully and play regularly in Chicago with occasional forays to the East Coast. Increasingly confident he stretched out stylistically recording and performing over a broader range than almost any other artist. He was comfortable in ragtime, hokum blues, country blues, city blues, jazz tinged songs, folk songs and spirituals. He continued to evolve an urban sound on sides like Where the Blues Began with Big Maceo on piano and Buster Bennett on sax, Martha Blues with Memphis Slim on piano, Key to the Highway.
In 1948 he was signed to a major label, Mercury, finally leaving the fading race labels behind.
But in Chicago a new generation of electric bluesmen was rising. Despite his willingness to adapt, he was losing his core audience.
Just as it looked like his career might be going into decline, he joined Chicago folk musician Win Strake, Lawrence Lane, and storytelling raconteur Studs Terkel in the touring Come For To Sing Review. Terkle recalled that Broonzy was “the glue that kept us together. The successful tour re-introduced Broonzy to the white audience of the folk revival. Adapting quickly, he returned to earlier country style solo blues and began introducing adaptations of American folk songs into his act.
That led to a tour of Europe and even greater adulation. Back home he began to tour with Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. For the first time he was recording albums, not singles and his recordings on Folkways are classics. For the first time in his life, Broonzy was actually making a comfortable living as a musician.
Through the early and mid-50’s he returned often to Britain where his appearances at clubs in London and Edinburgh were influential in the nascent British folk revival and in rising interest in the blues. While on tour in 1953 he fell in love with a Dutch girl, Pim van Isveldt who bore him a son, Michael who still lives in Amsterdam.
Despite his success he enjoyed working summer for three years as a cook and informal mentor at the radical Circle Pines Center, a cooperative year-round camp in Hastings, Michigan. In 1956 he and Pete Seeger recorded a joint concert there which was later broadcast on Chicago’s fine arts FM station WFMT.
In 1955 with the assistance of Belgian ghost writer Yannick Bruynoghe, he published his autobiography, Big Bill’s Blues. The same year he undertook a world tour to Africa, South America, Pacific, across Europe, stopping as he always did to spend some time with Pim and his son.
With his pals Win Strake, and Studs Terkel, Broonzy became a founding faculty member of the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1957. Sadly he died of throat cancer on August 14, 1958. He is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island. At the Old Town School his portrait and guitar are displayed as precious relics.
Broonzy’s influence on generations of musicians, Black and White is nearly incalculable.