Big Bill Broonzy Biography

William Lee Conley Broonzy, 26 June 1893 (some sources give 1898), Scott, Mississippi, USA, d. 14 August 1958, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Broonzy worked as a field hand, and it was behind the mule that he first developed his unmistakable, hollering voice, with its remarkable range and flexibility. As a child he made himself a violin, and learned to play under the guidance of an uncle. For a time, he worked as a preacher, before settling finally into the secular life of the blues singer. After service in the army at the end of World War I, he moved to Chicago, where he learned to play guitar from Papa Charlie Jackson.

Despite his late start as a guitarist, Broonzy quickly became proficient on the instrument, and when he first recorded in the late 20s, he was a fluent and assured accompanist in both ragtime and blues idioms. His voice retained a flavour of the countryside, in addition to his clear diction, but his playing had the up-to-date sophistication and assurance of the city dweller. The subjects of his blues, too, were those that appealed to blacks who, like him, had recently migrated to the urban north, but retained family and cultural links with the south. As such, Broonzy’s music exemplifies the movement made by the blues from locally made folk music to nationally distributed, mass media entertainment. He was sometimes used as a talent scout by record companies, and was also favoured as an accompanist; up to 1942 he recorded hundreds of tracks in this capacity, as well as over 200 issued, and many unissued, titles in his own right. His own records followed trends in black tastes; by the mid-30s they were almost always in a small-group format, with piano, and often brass or woodwind and a rhythm section, but his mellow, sustained guitar tones were always well to the fore.

Despite his undoubted ‘star’ status - not until 1949 was it necessary to put his full name on a race record: just ‘Big Bill’ was enough - the questionable financial practices of the record industry meant that his income from music did not permit a full-time career as a musician until late in his life. After World War II, Broonzy had lost some of his appeal to black audiences, but by this time he had shrewdly moved his focus to the burgeoning white audience, drawn from jazz fans and the incipient folk song revival movement. He had played Carnegie Hall in 1938 (introduced as a Mississippi ploughhand!), and in 1951 was one the blues’ first visitors to Europe. He recorded frequently, if from a narrowed musical base, changing his repertoire radically to emphasize well-known, older blues such as ‘Trouble In Mind’, blues ballads such as ‘John Henry’, popular songs such as ‘Glory Of Love’ and even protest numbers, including the witty ‘When Do I Get To Be Called A Man’. He became a polished raconteur, and further developed his swinging, fluent guitar playing, although on slow numbers he sometimes became rather mannered, after the fashion of Josh White. Broonzy was greatly loved by his new audience, and revered by the younger Chicago blues singers. In 1955 he published an engaging, anecdotal autobiography, compiled by Yannick Bruynoghe from his letters. It should be noted that Broonzy had learned to write only in 1950, taught by students at Iowa State University, where he worked as a janitor.

Broonzy was a proud, determined man, and a pivotal figure in blues, both when it was the music of black Americans, and as it became available to whites the world over. His reputation suffered after his death, as his later recordings were deemed as having pandered to white tastes. The importance of his earlier contribution to black music was not fully understood. Broonzy was an intelligent and versatile entertainer, and his immense talent was always at the service of his audience and their expectations.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.