2010: Louisiana State University Press
I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy
2011: University of Chicago Press
It is rather intriguing that two books on the life and music of legendary Chicago bluesman Big Bill Broonzy have been published within a year. I had purchased and read, Blue Smoke, by Roger House when I became aware of Bob Riesman’s I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. While the latter book will be available in early May, 2011, it provides a very different book than House’s and, as discussed below, is the preferred biography of Broonzy, although House’s book, while consolidating information that was known when he wrote it, is valuable as a cultural history of Broonzy and his songs, but accepts perhaps too much of Broonzy’s sometimes fanciful autobiography Big Bill’s Blues: William Broonzy’s Story As Told To Yannick Bruynoghe.
For those who are not familiar with him, Broonzy was a very popular blues singer, guitarist and songwriter who had moved from the deep South after World War I and was mentored by Papa Charlie Jackson and Blind Blake before commencing a recording career in 1927 when Paramount issued his House Rent Stomp. By the mid-1930s he had become established as a popular recording artist who recorded regularly for what was known then as Race Records series and, after World II, “Rhythm and Blues.” Such songs as Key to the Highway, It Was a Dream, When I Get to Drinking, I Feel So Good, Southbound Train, and others established Broonzy as a major star in the Chicago blues world and became part of the blues repertoire. He also played a significant role in the live club scene and was ready to take someone under his wing to mentor.
Broonzy also was one of the first bluesmen to cross over to a more general audience, starting with his appearance at the fabled From Spirituals To Swing concerts that John Hammond presented at Carnegie Hall in the late 1930s. Broonzy was a replacement for Robert Johnson who Hammond originally sought, but had died before he had been contacted. It was the beginning of a relationship with the white audience that included performing at the famed Cafe Society, concerts organized by Alan Lomax at Carnegie Hall and other venues in the late forties, and he later participated in early folk revival concerts in the United States, and he was amongst the earliest ‘folk’ bluesmen to tour Europe where he had lengthy engagements as well as developed some close personal relationships. His repertoire included ‘folk songs’ including those associated with other artists like Leroy Carr or Leadbelly, reworked renditions of his commercial recordings and protest songs like Black, Brown and White.
House’s Blue Smoke is a less detailed attempt at a biography. It is reliant on Big Bill’s Blues for facts on Broonzy’s early life as well as until he moved up north. He takes the basic parameters presented in the books, such as the claim of his parents being together during slave time, being born in Mississippi, serving in Europe in World War 1 and leaving the South after experiencing the white supremacist backlash against blacks after he returned from the War. The problem is that Broonzy’s account of his early days is a fantasy that reflects the image that Broonzy wishes to project about his origins, but is not consistent with some of the facts of Broonzy's early life. That said, it isn't the only source of information on Broonzy's early life as Broonzy wrote a short account for Art Hodes magazine The Jazz Record, and was also interviewed by Alan Lomax.
House's strength is focusing on Broonzy and his recording in the socio-cultural context they took place in. Broonzy was one of many blacks that migrated from the racist deep South to the urban North and places his music in the context of the house and rent parties, taverns and theaters and shared experiences the migrants had in the northern urban ghettoes. He traces Broonzy's recording career from Papa Charlie Jackson's introduction of him to Paramount Records through his establishing himself as one of the most recorded blues artists in the thirties and forties. Broonzy's recordings evolved from guitar duets where Broonzy displayed the influence of the great Blind Blake, to spectacular piano-guitar duets with Black Bob, and Joshua Altheimer, and then the small group blues with horns with Memphis Slim and Blind John Davis.
In considering Broonzy’s crossing over to white audiences starting with the Spiritual to Swing, House does not note that Broonzy was a replacement for the dead Robert Johnson, and notes how Broonzy was presented as an authentic primitive in contrast to his status as a significant urban blues artist of the time. But while he recites facts about Broonzy’s life, he also does not go into depth about, for example, the relationship Broonzy had with Lil Green, which went beyond simply playing guitar on many of her sessions, but also writing songs for her and accompanying her on early tours before she was connected with Tiny Bradshaw’s Big Band.
After the roughly 160 pages on Broonzy, Blue Smoke also contains an extensive and invaluable 60-odd-page discography of all known recordings that Broonzy made as well as those by other artists on which he played. While flawed as a biography, there are insights and issues raised as well as some astute consideration of Broonzy’s music that makes it worth considering. I do not regret purchasing this book despite its flaws.
I will conclude this survey tomorrow with the focus on Bob Reisman’s I Feel So Good.