An American Abroad Singing the Blues
Like many veterans after the Second World War, Big Bill Broonzy went to college to get an education. However, Broonzy’s stint at Iowa State University differed from most other GIs. First, he served in the US Army during World War I rather than World War II. More significantly, he worked at the school as a janitor rather than attended as a student. Still, Broonzy learned an important scholastic skill while at Iowa State. Some Cyclone undergraduates taught Big Bill how to read and write in exchange for him showing them some guitar licks.
Such was the situation of one of America’s finest blues artists in the late 1940s. Broonzy had been a popular guitar player and singer in Chicago during the 1920s. By the time of the Great Depression, he was a major artist on the Windy City blues scene who worked with other luminaries like Memphis Minnie, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson. Critics consider Broonzy one of the main inventors of the electric blues sound, which was later popularized as the Chicago Blues as performed by Muddy Waters and other artists on the Chess record label. Big Bill performed before a white audience for the first time in 1938 as part of John Hammond’s famous Spiritual and Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Less than 10 years later, Broonzy was largely forgotten by American audiences, and he was grateful to be employed at the college. (He later put his informal education to good use and wrote his autobiography, appropriately called Big Bill Blues.) Meanwhile, his reputation was growing in a place hungry for American folk and blues music—Europe. He toured the continent several times during the fifties to much acclaim. Miraculously, two of these shows were recorded on high quality tape and marvelously preserved. After more than 40 years, these two live concerts from Amsterdam in 1953 are being released to the general public. This two-disc set succeeds both as art and artifact. Broonzy’s superb talent as a musician and performer is clearly evident. He not only sings and plays well; Big Bill creates an intimate rapport with the crowd. His between song patter also functions to reveal poisonous effect of racism in the United States at this time in history.
While Broonzy’s best known for his war vocal delivery, this document shows that he was quite a good guitar picker as well. He plays several instrumentals that include two rags, a stomp, and a sweet rendition of “Glory of Love”. These, and his pre-song riffs, reveal his ability to play precise lines and solo counter beats to a fairly fast tempo. His intricate guitar intro to “When the Sun Goes Down” illustrates how Broonzy can set the mood and hook a listener before he even begins to sing.
Big Bill is in fine voice throughout, whether he’s singing hardcore blues numbers like “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” and “Kansas City Blues”, or more quasi-operatic numbers, like his rendition of “Trouble in Mind”, in which he frequently trills the notes in the back of his throat. Incidentally, Broonzy sings “Trouble in Mind” twice during the same show (20 February 1953) and does the same with the tune “John Henry”. The liner notes suggest that this may have been due to the amount of alcohol he consumed that night, but that is of little matter as it did not have and adverse effect on either his singing or playing.
Broonzy is credited with writing over 350 songs, including most of the two dozen tracks on these discs. He also covers tunes by Bessie Smith, Leadbelly and other artists he’s known first hand. Big Bill talks of their shared histories together. Several times during the shows, he comments about racism in America. The year 1953 is during the height of the Cold War and the blues artists is careful not to criticize his country too strongly while in a foreign land. This was the time period in which other black artists like Paul Robeson and Richard Wright were forced into exile from their homeland. Most of Broonzy comments are hidden between the lines as he praises Holland for its openness and kind treatment of him and wishes all of his friends from Mississippi could join him there.
Broonzy grew up in the Deep South and headed to Chicago to avoid Jim Crow’s deepest stings. Big Bill introduces his composition “Black, Brown and White” with a monologue about his family. His kids won’t travel South because of racial prejudice. Broonzy blames discrimination on poverty, “It’s just po’ people,” but notes that racism occurs in the North just as well. This tune itself serves as interesting example of bigotry as he wrote it in 1945, but his record company wouldn’t let him record it for over five years because of its explicit views on the situation of race attitudes in America. The song begins, “This little song that I’m singing about/ people you know it’s true/if you’re black and got to look for a living/now this is what they will say to you /if you’s white, it’s alright/if you’s brown, stick around /but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.” Big Bill did make it back to America and Europe several more times until his death by throat cancer in 1958. Many of his albums are still in print, but this one is truly special. The two discs reveal the high level of Broonzy’s musical and performing abilities. The recordings also provide an interesting perspective of the times—an oblong look of America from abroad by one of its native sons.