Monday, May 02, 2011

Bill Bill Broonzy celebrated in Two Biographies Part 2 - I Feel So Good

Blues Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy
Roger House
2010: Louisiana State University Press

I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy
Bob Riesman
2011: University of Chicago Press

This is the second part of my consideration of two recent Big Bill Broonzy biographies. Today the focus on the just published I Feel So Good.

Bob Riesman’s I Feel So Good stands as the biography on Broonzy. Going beyond the mostly library sources of House’s book, Riesman described the challenges he faced:

"Over the course of researching and writing the book, I’ve learned that Bill was exemplary in many respects, flawed in others, and capable of exquisitely contradictory behavior. He left invaluable material for future historians by writing dozens of letters to correspondents in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States, who preserved many of them. During the same period, he provided substantial amounts of misleading or just plain wrong information about himself, his family, and his colleagues to interviewers, readers, and audiences on three continents that would take decades to untangle.

"Because of Bill’s success at what magicians call misdirection—directing the audience’s attention away from where the crucial action is being performed—the challenges facing a would-be biographer have not been simple or straightforward. He specified incorrect marriage dates to wives whose names he changed in the telling, heaped praise on a favorite uncle who is absent from all family records and memories, relocated his own birth to a different state and set it in a different decade, and gave himself different first and last names. It turned out that it was necessary to retrace his steps in Europe to find out who he was and where he came from.”

Key to uncovering this was when he interviewed “Pim van Isveldt, the Dutch woman with whom he had fathered a son, Michael, in 1956. “Near the end of our conversation, Pim handed me a shoebox in which she had kept the many letters Bill had written her. He had written one of them while visiting his sister, Lannie Bradley Wesley, in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Her home address, which Bill had given as the return address, was a vital clue."

He would later meet and interview Broonzy’s grand-niece and grand-nephew, who helped establish some of the facts that Broonzy obscured. “Bill’s imaginative powers enabled him to obscure his origins and many portions of his journeys, while illuminating the worlds he grew up in and passed through. In my view, Bill’s life and work can best be understood and appreciated by considering both the facts and the truth—as Studs Terkel put it, “Bill is speaking the truth—his truth.” Here is my version of Big Bill Broonzy’s story.””

In the course of compiling this story he interviewed countless people including blues man Billy Boy Arnold (who was mentored by Big Bill and is scheduled to have an album of Broonzy’s music released), members of Broonzy’s family, Bill Randle who produced the last interviews of Broonzy, Studs Terkel, David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Pete Seeger, Rambling Jack Elliott, Jody Williams, Jimmie Lee Robinson and Ron Sweetman. He also explored the archives of Yannick Bruynoghe, and Jim O’Neal provided tapes of an interview with Blind John Davis and a transcript of one with Memphis Slim. This is just to give a sense of the depth of research and material used for this biography.

And through his research (collaborated by other blues researchers), we know that Big Bill Broonzy’s real name is Lee Bradley and he was born in Jefferson County, Arkansas on June 26, 1903, the fourth and last boy of Frank and Mittie Bradley, and the Bradley Family lived in Jefferson County outside Pine Bluff from the 1880s through the 1920s.

While from the 1930s on, Broonzy claimed he was born in Scott, Mississippi, ten years earlier than his actual birth date, Riesman observes that “the documentary evidence is clear that the facts are otherwise. Lannie Bradley Wesley’s granddaughter Rosie Tolbert keeps the family records. She and her older sister Jo Ann Jackson remember their uncle Bill and his sister (their grandmother Lannie), their great-grandmother Mittie, their great-uncle Frank Bradley Jr., and their great-aunts Gustavia and Mary. The censuses of 1900, 1910, and 1920 all show Frank and Mittie Bradley and their children living at home in Jefferson County. Tax records, marriage licenses, Social Security applications, and death certificates all confirm and reinforce the fact that Big Bill Broonzy was Lee Bradley of the Bradley clan.” Yet while he might misdirect on specifics as to his family and his early dates, Big Bill provided “an indelible sense of what it was like to be in a particular place at a particular time. This was both his gift and his artistry.” The truths he spoke were more general truths than the life he may actually have lived.

Riesman helps us understand and follow his life in considerable detail. The book opens with a chapter with an account of Broonzy’s funeral and notes that the arrangements were taken care of by Win Stracke, who had toured the Midwest with Big Bill in a folk song review, as well as also appearing on Studs Terkel’s radio program, and he helped launched Big Bill’s European concerts tours. Bill trusted Win enough to name him executor of the estate. While House summarizes Broonzy’s funeral, Riesman goes into depth about the participants and their roles and the deliberate choice of four black and four white pallbearers.

Riesman continues in tracing his musical career as a country fiddler, often playing for white folk, to the brilliant guitarist who became the preeminent blues artist in Chicago. More context is placed in discussing his appearance at From Spirituals To Swing, including the fact that Blind Boy Fuller was in jail, led to Broonzy, not Fuller, being the ‘primitive’ blues artist in lieu of the deceased Robert Johnson. He covers more fully Bill’s performances in taverns as well as touring with Lil Green. The time he spent in Iowa is also fully detailed as is the European travels, with much new information presented that gives a sense of him as a person and how he was regarded by so many from such different backgrounds. 

For this review I read a proof of Riesman’s text which included footnotes, a selected discography (actually recommended reissues) and Big Bill on film. It did not include photographs that likely will be in the published version nor an index. 

I Feel So Good was a compelling read and a biography worthy of the subject, whose blues are timeless. Highly recommended.

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