Big Bill Broonzy's complicated history 

"Well, I was born in Mississippi, in the year 18 and 93. I was born on a plantation and I stayed there until I was eight years old. Then my daddy and mother, they brought us — me and my twin sister and about eight more of us — to Arkansas — that was Langdale — Langdale, Arkansas."

— Big Bill Broonzy, from Alan Lomax's "The Land Where the Blues Began"

The only true parts of that origin story are "born on a plantation" and "Arkansas." In fact, Langdale doesn't appear to exist anymore, if it was ever an actual place at all. And the sister he spoke of wasn't his twin, but the closest sibling by birth and sheer love, which in his interpretation and expression would pretty much make them twins.

Inventing a hometown, moving your birthplace to a neighboring state, and setting your birthday a decade earlier in another century takes a real character — like the one Lee Conley Bradley created for himself: Big Bill Broonzy. One of the quintessential blues artists of the 20th century and a key link in the chain from the early blues of the 1920s to the folk revival of the 1950s, Broonzy's contributions to American popular music cannot be overstated.

For an artist that remains relatively unknown today by even casual blues fans, his influence is staggering. This list includes, but is not limited to, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, who to this day never misses an opportunity to offer up praise and point out how The Kinks calling card "You Really Got Me" was his attempt at a great rhythm and blues song — something Big Bill Broonzy would play.

But before there was a Big Bill Broonzy, there was Lee Conley Bradley, who was born June 26, 1903, in Jefferson County, Arkansas, where he was raised with his nine siblings on a sharecropper plantation. That's just one of the revelations in Chicago-based author Bob Riesman's meticulously researched biography, "I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy" (The University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Riesman peels back the layers on a life story that may have been light on facts, but always had an essence of the truth. What emerges is an enlightening and highly enjoyable portrait of a man who seemingly always knew exactly who he was and where his trajectory lay in his immediate scene, in the lineage of roots music, and in the plight of rural, Southern African Americans.

Broonzy was blessed with a unique, emotive voice that could nimbly shift from a meditative, brooding drawl to rollicking, boisterous twang depending on the mood and the melody. His inimitable guitar playing functioned as an extension of his warm, expansive personality, creating a seamless presence with his skills as well as his look, manner and words. His affable nature and musical malleability would serve him well throughout his career.

Like most African Americans growing up in the segregated South under Jim Crow laws, Broonzy's early life was marked by blistering hard work, commitment to the church and little formal education. The education he did receive away from church and the schoolhouse was his earliest musical influence, Uncle Jerry Belcher, who was likely an amalgamation of older relatives and family friends since no historical records of him exist. Broonzy learned his earliest songs from listening to the decidedly non-church going Uncle Jerry play instruments created out of tubs, brooms and other household items. This might have inspired Broonzy's first instrument, a fiddle fashioned out of cornstalks brought back from the cotton fields where he toiled.


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