By Mike Greenblatt
Muddy Waters once said of Big Bill Broonzy, “I try to be like him.” A teenaged Eric Clapton saw Big Bill Broonzy tour England and later said it was, “like I was looking into heaven.” That pioneering 1950s British Broonzy tour helped shape the course of rock ’n’ roll history. Broonzy, while criminally underappreciated in his own country, was listened to religiously by a generation of aspiring teenaged musicians like Pete Townshend, Keith Richards and Ray Davies, who all fell under his sway before forming their own bands and playing the blues, partly in his honor. Elvis Presley even took Broonzy’s “That’s All Right, Mama” and made it his own.
Despite its title, “Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs,” originally released in 1962, is not all folk music. As the man himself says, “all the songs I ever heard in my life was folk songs. I never heard horses sing one of ‘em yet.”
Broonzy died before this album ever came out. Moses Asch of Folkways Records released it as a tribute to a fallen giant. Now, Smithsonian Folkways has partnered up with the vinyl subscription service Vinyl Me, Please to release this 11-track gem on 180-gram vinyl as remastered for sonic perfection by producer Pete Reiniger, who already has three Grammy Awards.
Recorded in a New York City recording studio and at his portion of a Chicago concert with Pete Seeger, the wealth of material traverses blues, popular song, folk and a spiritual where he sings in righteous fervor “spoke to the sick, sick got well/spoke to the dead, dead did rise/Tell me, what kind of man Jesus is.” On “John Henry,” his virtuoso guitar playing has him performing simultaneous rhythm and lead. “Backwater Blues” is an ominous evocation of natural disaster with the spine-tingling last line, “they didn’t have no place to go.” Yet his humor rises to the fore in “Goin’ Down This Road,” where he complains “these $2 shoes hurt my feet/Takes a $10 shoe to fit my feet!”
Other highlights include “This Train,” where he sings passionately of “no Jim Crow/no discrimination” and “I Don’t Want No Woman (To Try To Be My Boss),” because she’ll “put your head in a trough and feed you like you’s a horse.” Then there’s his ever-lovin’ “Martha Blues,” a good old gal who “ain’t good-lookin’ but she gives old Bill a thrill.” On “Tell Me Who,” he wants to know “who that been foolin’ you/Tellin’ you you’re 5’7” and pretty, too.” The two songs alone are worth the price of admission. Broonzy tears up “Bill Bailey,” a song that’s been covered by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Phish, Harry Connick Jr., Sam Cooke and dozens of others since Hughie Cannon wrote it in 1902. The other is “Glory Of Love,” done as an uptempo rag which shows off not only Broonzy’s tremendous instrumental technique but another side of his voice. He lays back, lingering a micro-second behind his own beat, almost like a jazz singer. The man was nothing if not an entertainer.
Big Bill Broonzy was born Lee Conley Bradley in 1893 in Mississippi. Historians are at odds, as some say he was born in Arkansas. Even the date of his birth is disputed. What we know for sure is that he died on August 14, 1958, in his 60s from throat cancer. He recorded 224 songs between 1927 and 1942, suffered a lull of activity but came back strong in 1948 with “Key To The Highway.” This permitted him to tour Europe in the 1950s, but he still had to work as a cook at a Michigan summer camp for years until he was rediscovered. His “Big Bill Blues” autobiography came out in 1955 to precede another round of stardom and worldwide touring, so he did enjoy a time of prosperity and fame. Unfortunately, he died before the 1960s folk and blues boom on college campuses across America.
“Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs” comes complete with original artwork, original liner notes and a new reflection by his biographer Bob Riesman, 2011 author of “I Feel So Good: The Life And Times Of Big Bill Broonzy” (University of Chicago Press). GM
FOR MORE INFORMATION on Vinyl Me, Please, go to www.vinylmeplease.com.
For more information on Smithsonian Folkways, go to www.folkways.si.edu/folkways-recordings/smithsonian.