Big Bill Broonzy
Blues musician, vocalist, and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy was born on June 26, 1893, and died on August 15, 1958. In the 1920s, he started his career performing country blues for predominantly African-American audiences. He was able to successfully adapt his technique during the 1930s and 1940s such that it would appeal to urban blues fans among working-class African-Americans. He became a major player in the folk music renaissance that was taking shape in the United States in the ’50s by returning to his folk-blues roots. He had a long and successful career, making him an important role in the 20th-century blues scene.
Broonzy is an Arkansas native. Even though Broonzy claimed to have been born in 1893 in Scott, Mississippi, some evidence suggests that he was born in 1903 in Lake Dick, Arkansas. Bill’s early years were spent in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, following the family’s relocation soon after his birth. His early exposure to music is reflected in his prodigious talent. At the age of ten, with the help of his uncle Jerry Belcher, he fashioned a fiddle out of an old cigar box and taught himself to play spirituals and folk music. Beginning at social and church gatherings, he performed alongside a friend named Louis Carter, who played a homemade guitar. Many of these earliest gigs took place at “two-stages,” or picnics with separate dance areas for whites and blacks.
The music of his youth, including spirituals, work songs, ragtime, hokum, and country blues, and the work of his contemporaries like Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Son House, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, all had an impact on Broonzy’s sound. A precursor to the post-war Chicago blues sound perfected and popularized by performers like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, Broonzy fused a wide range of musical influences to create his distinctive blues style.
Although he was a forerunner of the Chicago blues style and had used electric instruments as early as 1942, his new, white audiences preferred to hear him play his earliest songs accompanied simply by his acoustic guitar, which was believed to be more “genuine.”
After enlisting in the military in 1918, he relocated to Chicago in 1920, where he began playing the guitar in support of African American blues singers on their first recorded performances the following year. Years later, he tried his hand at singing, and by 1940, he was already a top-selling blues recording artist. In 1938, he gave his first performance in New York City, and it was at Carnegie Hall. He made his way to Europe in 1951, quickly gaining a large fan base. However, a lung operation in 1957, at the height of his fame, diminished his vocal power, and he died of cancer the following year.
Broonzy was the second most productive blues recording artist between 1927 and 1942, with 224 songs recorded. These came out before blues records were often included in trade publications for the music business. The popularity of Broonzy’s recordings had waned by October 1942, when Billboard introduced its first “race music” charts. Therefore none of his albums was featured there.
Throughout his career, Broonzy wrote and recorded hundreds of songs, many of which have become blues standards. Some of his most famous songs include “Key to the Highway,” “Just a Dream,” “When Did You Leave Heaven,” and “Black, Brown and White.” His music reflects the experiences of African Americans in the early 20th century, and his lyrics often address issues of race, poverty, and social justice.
Broonzy’s impact on the blues was immense, and he remains one of the most important figures in the history of American popular music. He was a pioneer of the Chicago blues movement and helped to introduce the blues to a wider audience, both in the United States and abroad. His music has been covered by countless artists and continues to inspire new generations of musicians.
In recognition of his contributions to the blues, Big Bill Broonzy has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is remembered as one of the greatest blues musicians of all time, and his music continues to inspire and entertain fans around the world.
Broonzy was a blues legend who left a lasting impact on the music world. He was a powerful performer and songwriter who helped to shape the sound of the blues and paved the way for future generations of musicians. His music remains popular and influential to this day, and his legacy will continue to inspire and entertain fans for generations to come.
Here is a video of Big Bill Broonzy –