One of my favorite scenes from Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World takes place in a bar. Seymour (a pitch-perfect Steve Buscemi) sits quietly with Enid (Thora Birch) enjoying an “authentic” blues musician (played by the late Fred Chatman). Enid has schemed to help Seymour meet women, and asks one such woman to take a seat beside Seymour. The woman informs Seymour (after some bumbling conversation) that if he likes “authentic” blues, he will love Blueshammer—an all-white fraternity band that promptly begins jamming with lyrics like, “I’ve been plowing behind the mule, son/picking cotton all day long!”
Blueshammer works as both absurd satire and painful critique, poking at the cultural question of the authenticity of white blues musicians while also acknowledging the uncomfortable history of white musicians’ relationship with blues. Where Elvis and The Rolling Stones can claim the influence of roots music reasonably well, the farther we move from the early generations of bluesman the more the question of authenticity rears its head. Black musicians like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy, and a score of others played for their lives; whites played for their enjoyment.
But no such question of authenticity can be breached in Bob Riesman’s meticulously researched book I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. It’s a mostly chronological affair that aims to uncover the details of Big Bill’s rise from the fields of Arkansas to the studio and beyond, and, more importantly, to separate fact from fiction. It’s no simple undertaking given that Broonzy spent much of his life fabricating stories of his origins, his whereabouts, and even his name. (He was born Lee Conley Bradley, a noted deviation from his moniker, William Broonzy.) Broonzy dipped into fiction and fabrication, relaying wild-eyed stories of questionable origin to noted archivist Alan Lomax and to Yannick Bruynoghe, his writing partner for his biography, Big Bill Blues.
Riesman begins with the end, as Broonzy has passed away from throat cancer. His portrait of Broonzy’s funeral in Chicago in 1958, complete with one group of white pallbearers and one group of black pallbearers carrying Broonzy to his resting place, burns with immediacy and emotion. Riesman’s description of the scene is flooded with hope and possibility, the sense that despite the still-deep racial divides of the country, Broonzy’s passing had somehow stalled all of that.
Of course, we know the rest; post-1958 race relations and civil rights had not yet begun to boil over or reach their violent conclusion. But Broonzy’s funeral brought unity for many and did it under a common link: music. And, as Riesman notes, “it was a picture of Chicago in 1958, a vibrant and dynamic center of music made largely by people who had been born someplace else.”
If only the remainder of Riesman’s book had burned with the type of vivid scenes and visceral observations of the first chapter.
The remainder of the text is mostly dedicated to correcting the falsehoods that Bill perpetrated, tracking Broonzy’s recording sessions, relaying concerts he played, people he met, and his journeys to Europe. While it’s done with skill and research of the highest order, it’s also a narrative killer. It’s a linear recitation of facts and culture from Riesman’s research that, at it’s worst, feels like a sterilization of Broonzy’s own imaginative storytelling and vibrant music. Riesman quotes from Broonzy’s own autobiography at length and then moves on to explain in multiple paragraphs why Broonzy’s words are inaccurate and then presenting his own findings. Factually, it’s difficult to take this kind research to task, but that doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable. And from the context of Broonzy’s life, he was full of enjoyment—a feeling that’s difficult to capture with hardfisted facts.
Riesman is heavily invested in his subject as displayed by the care (and time) he takes to rectify even the smallest of half-truths. But here that type of investment leads to an A then B, then C chronology that lessens Broonzy’s stature as a teller of tales, downplays his role as a vital musician, and, more importantly, removes his voice from the story.
Credit Riesman for going straight to the source; he tracked down relatives of Broonzy’s family for his history and uses Broonzy’s lyrics as jumping-off points for a lot of his text. But again, Riesman quotes Broonzy’s lyrics at length, sometimes for entire pages. Instead of allowing the music to speak for itself, Riesman opts to speak for the music and, thereby, also for Broonzy.
It’s a dangerous balancing act to bring fact and history to a beloved blues figure, especially when he’s already taken it upon himself to present his own version of the truth. Most of the time Riesman handles the task well enough to make the narrative pressing. Other times, chapters labor on and on with only cultural context and historical sites to keep it afloat.
Which brings me back around to the question of authenticity. No doubt Riesman has presented the most authentic version of Broonzy’s life and times—it’s hard to argue with good research. But he’s also managed to strip some of the authenticity and personality of Broonzy by debunking Broonzy’s version of his own life. Several times during my readings, I wished I were reading Broonzy’s autobiography Big Bill Blues instead of Riesman’s I Feel So Good. The excerpts from Big Bill Blues Riesman presents contain more life and feeling in them that multiple chapters of Riesman’s own text. And although blues historians and scholars should welcome I Feel So Good as a much-need piece of blues biography, coming to Big Bill Broonzy’s life through Riesman’s book can feel a bit like watching Blueshammer: it’s a simulated experience that can’t compare to the real thing.