Big Bill Broonzy was born on a plantation June 26, 1893, in Scott, Mississippi, with a twin sister, Laney, to a family already numbering a dozen children. As the century turned, Frank Broonzy moved his twins and, Bill said, “about eight more of us,” to Langdale, Ark.
Bill Broonzy said he learned to play the “cornstalk fiddle” at a young age. When Bill was 12, the family moved to Scott’s Crossing. Broonzy sang and played in church, eventually trying preaching himself before becoming a musician. His taller-than-six-foot-frame earned him the nickname “Big.” His military induction, processed through North Little Rock’s Camp Robinson, slowed his playing at parties and functions, and after his service, he concentrated on guitar.
By 1927, Broonzy was recording for Paramount Records and recorded for other noted early blues labels — Columbia, Bluebird, Chess — sometimes billed simply as “Big Bill.” Through the 1930s, Broonzy worked with other future blues legends like his half-brother, Washboard Sam of Walnut Ridge, Pine Bluff native Casey Bill Weldon and Weldon’s alleged wife, Memphis Minnie.
On Dec. 23, 1938, when Broonzy was an Arkansas farm hand between recording dates, he appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York City to a rare integrated audience. The “From Spirituals To Swing” concert was presented by legendary impresario John Hammond — and featured Cotton Plant native Rosetta Tharpe. Big Bill, as Broonzy’s stage name appeared in the program, was a last-minute replacement for bluesman Robert Johnson, who had recently died.
The performance was billed as Broonzy’s first appearance before a white audience. That was hardly true. Broonzy himself said, “I never did play for no Negroes until after I got away from around my home and come to Chicago.”
He said he’d played for whites in Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas, “because if you play for colored people, they just consider you a bum musician. The white folks want all the good things for themselves.”
It wouldn’t be Broonzy’s last appearance before the world’s tastemakers.
Although he’d recorded for years in various configurations with full bands and with horns, and helped form the modern Chicago blues style, he was often portrayed as a pure folk performer, straight from the farm. Broonzy didn’t go out of his way to dispel the conceit.
Broonzy’s message songs about racial equality, such as “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man” and “Done Got Wise,” resonated with blacks and his ever-increasing liberal white audience.
He was among the first American bluesmen to tour overseas in the 1950s, and his international popularity became such that a Danish biographer wrote a book about him in 1955. He toured Europe again in 1957, several years before the full explosion of interest in American blues in Europe.
Broonzy also wrote standards like “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” and “Key to the Highway,” later covered by countless R&B and rock groups. By then, Broonzy’s reputation as one of the most important blues progenitors — popular enough to record through the Depression and an American musical ambassador — was entrenched.
Broonzy died of cancer Aug. 15, 1958, in Chicago. Unable to fully reap the benefits of the post-1950s popularity of blues, he is still acknowledged as one of its creators.
“If you believe in it, and it’s right, you’re happy,” he said. “And that’s me.”
Hear more about Big Bill Broonzy on “Arkansongs” Friday at 6:40 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR-FM, 89.1. E-mail: email@example.com.
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