Big Bill Broonzy, Chicago, 1937-1940 (four CD set), Big Bill Broonzy, ISP Records, 2005
I am in the process of reading and re-reading many of the books of oral history interviews collected by the recently departed Studs Terkel. As part of that process I have read his last work (published in 2007), a memoir of sorts but really a series of connected vignettes, that goes a long way to putting the pieces of Studs’ eclectic life together. A fact that I did not know is that Studs’ had radio and television music shows in the Chicago of the 1950’s. On one of those shows he performed with the blues/jazz folk artist under review here, Big Bill Broonzy. That long ago reference was enough for this reviewer to scamper back to give a listen to the melodious voice of one of the best in these traditions. But that begs the question where to start?
That is not merely a rhetorical question here. My first exposure to Big Bill, back in the mists of times, was as a performer on a Sunday night folk program here in Boston. In that format he was presented as a folk singer in the style of a black Pete Seeger, including singing many leftist political songs dealing with the pressing questions of race and class. Later I found some more jazzy works by him and some more raucous material in the old country blues tradition. So I hope you can see my dilemma.
The hard fact is that certain musicians, certain very talented musicians, can work more than one milieu or can transform themselves (for commercial or other reasons) into more than one genre. Moreover, in Big Bill’s case, the confluence of folk, blues and jazz at some points is fairly close. That surely is the case here on this CD compilation. So give a listen to that voice, that guitar and those wonderful songs. I might add that, although it seemed to be a given at the time, some of Big Bill lyrics are on point on racial segregation and other social issues. Think of the songs like “Brown, Black and White” or his version of “This Train” (that whipsaws Jim Crow very nicely). That is the real connection with old Studs, that is for sure.
Do That Guitar Rag 1928-1935, Big Bill Broonzy, Yazoo, 1991
The hard fact is that certain musicians, certain very talented musicians, can work more than one milieu or can transform themselves (for commercial or other reasons) into more than one genre. Moreover, in Big Bill's case, the confluence of folk, blues and jazz at some points is fairly close. That surely is the case here on this CD compilation. So give a listen to that voice, that guitar and those wonderful songs. At this time Big Bill was influenced by (and in turn influenced) the country blues mania then sweeping the black enclaves of the South (and not just those enclaves either- think about Jimmy Rodgers) and the songs here reflect that origin. What's good? "Guitar Rag", of course. "Down in the Basement" and "Bull Cow Blues" deserve a listen but for my money "Operation Blues" is tops here.
Added note: I "forgot" to add that on many of these tracks Big Bill has company. On some tracks that company is none other than the legendary Tom Dorsey (who also played behind Blind Willie McTell and many others in those days before going on to a gospel music career). On other tracks, in addition to Dorsey, the very, very bluesy voice of Jane Lucas is heard. Listen to "Leave My Man Alone". Nice, indeed.