Broonzy, Big Bill (1893–1958). Encyclopedia of American Folklore

Blues singer. William Lee Conley Broonzy was born in Scott, Mississippi, to a family of seventeen children, but he grew up on a farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas. There he learned violin from an uncle, Jerry Belcher, and later became proficient on the guitar and mandolin. In his early teens, he started entertaining at local parties and picnics. Then, after a brief stint in the army during World War I, Broonzy worked as a musician in Little Rock clubs until he moved to Chicago in 1920. In the Windy City, Broonzy met a large number of musicians and worked with several of them in local clubs. Still, it was six years before he made his first record; thereafter he had at least one session a year until 1957. During those thirtyone years, he recorded a variety of sides ranging from country and dance pieces (“Saturday Night Rub,” “Guitar Rag”) to hokum blues (“Somebody’s Been Using That Thing”) to Bluebird blues (“You Know I Gotta Reason”) to protest material (“Black, Brown, and White”). Broonzy’s recording career had three distinct phases. The decade 1926 to 1936 was largely given over to hokum (lighthearted sides featuring lyrics filled with sexual metaphors and including jokes and verbal interplay), and also to rags. The period 1936 to 1942 was the Bluebird period, an era when he recorded formulaic blues for the Bluebird label. These records usually featured small groups often made up of bass, piano, drums, trumpets, clarinets, or saxophones. In the late 1940s, Broonzy became a favorite on the New York City “folk” circuit, and he emphasized a very diverse repertoire, including ballads, gospel numbers, and contemporary songs, as well as blues. This new audience was primarily White, and their acclaim probably led to the 1955 publication of a ghostwritten autobiography, Big Bill Blues (rev. ed. 1964). Broonzy continued playing concerts in Europe and America until illness forced him to halt those activities in 1957. He died of cancer the following year. Broonzy was one of the most frequently recorded of blues singers and is noteworthy as a link between the country and the urban blues traditions. His generosity, wit, support of younger singers, and his considerable talents, combined to make him one of the most popular of all blues musicians. W.K.McNeil


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