Big Bill Broonzy wrote and recorded hundreds of blues songs. He started out recording for Paramount, scoring his first success with “Big Bill Blues” in 1927, and later recorded on some of the most influential labels of his time, including OKeh, Bluebird, Vocalion, Columbia, Chess, and Folkways. Broonzy performed or recorded with an impressive array of blues greats, including Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Washboard Sam, Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Slim, John Lee, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Georgia Tom Dorsey.
William Lee Conely Broonzy was born in Scott, Mississippi, on 26 June 1898. His parents, Frank and Nettie, were sharecroppers who eked out a living from the Delta soil by growing cotton. Seeking an improvement in their situation, the family moved to Arkansas, where Big Bill spent much of his youth and began playing the fiddle. In 1914 he married and began sharecropping on his own. He considered entering the Baptist ministry and played fiddle for various gatherings in Arkansas and Mississippi. The US Army drafted him during World War I, eventually sending him overseas, where he saw no action but did a lot of hard labor.
After his discharge and return to Mississippi, he decided to leave the South because of both racism and the breakup of his marriage. In 1920 Broonzy traveled to Chicago, where he fell under the tutelage of such bluesmen as Papa Charlie Jackson and Blind Blake. Until this time, Broonzy played in the songster mode, spinning out reels and waltzes on his fiddle. Switching to the guitar, he learned the rudiments of the blues. Before long, Broonzy could fingerpick or flat-pick the blues with equal dexterity. His newfound abilities brought him to the attention of Paramount, and his recording career began.
Over the next two decades Broonzy wrote, performed, and recorded numerous blues songs. He often used an urban blues style that showed both jazz and pop influences closer to the music of cosmopolitan players such as Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson rather than the Delta style of Robert Johnson or Charley Patton. Legendary producer John Hammond tapped Broonzy for the first historic Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938. For the concert, Broonzy was encouraged to play in a down-home mode and was introduced as an Arkansas sharecropper, to boost his authenticity. This exposure was not enough to ensure his continued success in the 1940s, when musical tastes drifted toward the propulsive electrified blues of Muddy Waters and Elmore James or toward rhythm and blues performers such as Louis Jordan and Charles Brown.
In the 1940s and 1950s Broonzy fell back on playing solo on his acoustic guitar and drawing on older down-home-style blues songs, some of which he had to relearn from recordings. This style and material especially appealed to the burgeoning leftist folk scene in New York and Chicago. His resulting popularity with this audience put him into contact with such performers as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White. In part owing to the progressive nature of the folk scene, protest songs also became part of his act. “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man” and “Black, Brown, and White Blues” are unrepentant attacks on racism in Jim Crow America. Broonzy’s career had a resurgence in the 1950s when he toured Western Europe, one of the first American bluesmen to do so. He found fame once again in Paris and London, but his new success was cut short because of failing health, and he died of cancer on 15 August 1958.
- William Broonzy, Big Bill Blues (1955)
- Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (1993); Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues (1997)
- Jeff Place and Anthony Seeger, Trouble in Mind (2000), liner notes; Bob Riesman, I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy (2011)