Big Bill Broonzy,
Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953
(Munich, 2006)

This attractively packaged two-disc set pays homage to a musician (1893-1958) who, though hugely influential and prolifically recorded, now survives only in the memories of hard-core devotees of blues and folk music. That thought hit me as I was first hearing Chris Cotton's "Blues for Big Bill," on his I Watched the Devil Die (which I reviewed in this space on 9 July 2005). Cotton's song almost overpowered me. As I regained my equilibrium, I tried to figure out why, realizing then that -- aside from the song's inherent quality and Cotton's admirable reading of it -- so few younger blues artists (or, for that matter, music critics and historians) ever give Broonzy a second thought, even if -- as is not often the case -- they've given him a first.

There was a time, however, when Broonzy, born in Mississippi, raised in Arkansas, a Chicagoan most of his adult life, was a ubiquitous figure. Though he died before the folk revival caught traction in the early 1960s, he saw it coming and did some recording (if hardly his best) with Pete Seeger. Before that, he'd already waxed hundreds of blues, ragtime and hokum tunes, singing in a style that blended rural and urban vocal inflections, playing acoustic guitar in a way that made extensive use of choked notes and hammered-on strings and writing -- along with many other fine songs -- at least one certifiable classic, "Key to the Highway."

He also wrote "Black, Brown, & White," a wry but pointed condemnation of white racism in America. This was in 1949, when that sort of statement, particularly from a black man in the public eye, took courage. He recruited blues performers for record labels, knew just about every significant African-American musician of his generation and from all accounts was much liked and respected. He also introduced Europeans to African-American blues, cannily billing himself as the last authentic blues singer.

He wasn't, of course. Neither was he a deep bluesman in the condemned-soul manner of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf or any number of other Mississippi-bred performers. His approach was a smoother one, more night club than juke joint. And he was less a pure blues performer than a songster, his repertoire embracing spirituals, non-blues folk material and pop ditties -- all done, of course, in Broonzy's inimitable style. Blues romanticism begins -- and, for many, ends -- with legends of haunted, tormented men awaiting their doom at Delta crossroads 'round midnight. Broonzy was too sunny and easy-going to conjure up those sorts of hellish visions. I suspect that's the reason he's no more than a vague presence, if that, in many people's blues memories.

Amsterdam Live comes near to bringing Broonzy back to life. The sound quality is fabulous, so sharp and warm it sustains the illusion that Broonzy is talking, singing and playing to you personally. The songs, some repeated (because they're taken from more than one concert), give a good sense of Broonzy's broad stylistic range, even while he identified himself as a bluesman. There are lots of familiar old folk songs, plus early-blues standards such as Jim Jackson's "Kansas City Blues," Bessie Smith's "Back-Water Blues" and Richard M. Jones' "Trouble in Mind," as well as some Broonzy originals (albeit not so many as one would like). All of this is interspersed with Broonzy's good-natured reminiscences and wisecracks. He even recycles his often-quoted quip (usually and erroneously attributed to Louis Armstrong) that all songs are folk songs because horses don't sing them.

Listening to this, you feel real good. It's not Robert Johnson and existential terror, in other words, just entertaining, slick (in the best sense), always friendly performances by one of African-American roots-music's all-time masters. One thanks Munich Records for making it possible and available. One hopes, too, that it will help resurrect the name of Big Bill Broonzy and restore to it the honor it deserves.

by Jerome Clark
7 October 2006

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