As both a full-time historian and a part-time music critic, I have a special appreciation for Smithsonian Folkways Records’ long-standing commitment to America’s musical roots. Moses Asche founded Folkways Records in 1948 as a bit of an anthropological project dedicated to locating and recording music, spoken word, and sounds from around the world. Smithsonian Records merged with Folkways in 1987 to further ensure the legacy of these important cultural artifacts. The combined company, whose catalog numbers over 2,200 albums, can rightly be credited with single-handedly documenting, preserving, and sharing much of the American roots music we have today. Their recent release by guitar player and singer Big Bill Broonzy, titled Trouble In Mind, is a solid addition to this vast collection.
Broonzy’s music is best understood within the particular historical context of the Great Migration. Born in Scott, Mississippi, on June 26, 1898, Broonzy spent his childhood working as a sharecropper alongside his father. His first significant musical influence came in this cultural context from an uncle who led a string band. As a young man, Broonzy played fiddle for country dances and segregated picnics. It was here, he has said, that he fell in love with grassroots music like reels, two-steps, blues, pop songs and waltzes. Following a stint in the Army during the First World War, Broonzy decided to take up music full time and headed to Chicago in 1920. He waded headlong into the single largest internal migration in United States history. From the mid-teens into the twenties, tens of thousands of southern African Americans pulled up their stakes and left for northern cities in search of jobs and opportunity. These migrants brought their cultural folkways with them; their accents, their customs, their stories, their food, and their music.
When these southern folkways encountered the rhythms and habits of northern city life, a distinctive new Afro-American culture began to evolve. Broonzy’s music was one example of this process. Broonzy was one of several early migrant musicians that brought Delta Blues and southern country dance music to Chicago and mixed it with the new sounds and experiences of the city (jazz, rags and hokum songs). His playing in the thirties contributed to the development of the unique blend of southern and northern musical styles that came to be called the Chicago Blues. During and after the Second World War, Broonzy was heavily influenced by the American folk movement that blossomed. As a result, in the late-forties, he turned to a more restrained folk-blues style similar to Josh White, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger. Stripped down to steel strings and voice, Broonzy began playing a set repertoire of songs which he recorded a number of times throughout the fifties.
Material for Trouble In Mind was culled from a mixture of Folkways studio tracks and live radio and concert broadcasts during the latter period of Broonzy’s career in 1956 and 1957. As a result, the production value is higher than on some older Smithsonian Folkways recordings. The music on this fairly relaxed set is diverse and highlights Broonzy’s effortless and unassuming guitar work as well as his rich, clear, and emotive voice. There are spirituals, like “This Train” and “Hush, Somebody’s Calling Me”; rural blues, like “Mule-Riding Blues” and “Plough-Hand Blues”; controversial topical pieces on racial injustice, such as “When Will I be Called a Man” and “Black, Brown and White Blues”; traditional folk tunes, including “Frankie and Johnny” and “Joe Turner No. 2”; a rag, “Shuffle Rag”; and a few classics that should be familiar even to the casual blues listener, particularly “Hey, Hey Baby,” “C.C. Rider,” “Trouble In Mind,” and “When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too).” Smithsonian Folkways also includes an informative 36-page booklet with extended liner notes, lyrics and photos. The presentation encourages the listener to interact with the music, to learn about it, and to explore its link to history. In a sense, then, when you purchase a Smithsonian Folkways release, you are buying a mini-musical archive, in this case on Big Bill Broonzy. The end result is a rewarding and culturally enriching experience. Get on board, because “this train is bound for glory.”