It all began with the country blues.
In some ways the status of country blues within the blues idiom seems like a paradox. After all, the first known blues recordings were made by the classic female blues singers of the 1920s like Mamie Smith, a distinctively urban form of the blues, more often associated with piano and brass instruments accompanying the vocalist rather than the lone cries of a whispery acoustic guitar.
But the blues didn’t arise from Vaudeville or the urban centers of black America originally. Rather, it began in the country fields of the late 19th century, as the work songs, field hollers, shouts, spirituals, chants and narrative ballads of the rural black worker in the deep south began to evolve into something new. Blues music arose from the ashes of the institution of slavery, as the black worker found a new freedom with which to express themselves fully and deeply.
Country blues, also known by the term “folk blues”, is a mostly acoustic-guitar and vocal-based form of music that grew out of the predecessors mentioned above, such as field hollers and chants. It encompasses a variety of mostly regional sub-genres, including Delta Blues, Piedmont Blues, and early Texas Blues. But despite its rural beginnings, the blues sub-genre would eventually spread to urban centers. Chicago, for instance. The country blues were brought to Chicago by artists like Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red. And also Big Bill Broonzy.
Big Bill Broonzy, born as Lee Conley Bradley, was reportedly born on June 26, 1893 in either Mississippi or Arkansas – it is not entirely clear which is the correct birthplace according to historians. The year has also been disputed, with certain family documents pointing to a birth year of 1903 rather than the earlier date. As a youth, Broonzy created his own cigar box fiddle and learned to play spirituals and folk tunes on it. He began performing at church and social events, though he began earning money as a sharecropper before shipping off to war in World War I.
In 1920, Big Bill Broonzy sought new opportunities in the great, inviting Midwestern metropolis of Chicago. At this point, he gave up the fiddle and learned guitar from a musician named Papa Charlie Jackson who he knew. Though Broonzy was forced to work various jobs including as a Pullman porter, a cook, and a custodian to pay the bills, what Broonzy really wanted was a life in music. Through his friendship with Charlie Jackson, Broonzy was able to score himself auditions with Paramount Records which ultimately led to him recording and releasing “Big Bill’s Blues” in 1927. Unfortunately, this and future recordings sold generally poorly. At least for awhile.
Broonzy began recording for the famous Vocalion Records in March of 1938 and his career began to take off. In fact, John Hammond, who desperately wanted Robert Johnson to perform for his “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall and we dismayed to learn that Johnson was dead, turned instead of Big Bill Broonzy to replace the deceased Johnson for the performance.
Throughout the 1940’s, Big Bill Broonzy’s repertoire of music came to encompass not just pure country blues but various other styles including urban blues, hokum, ragtime, folk songs, spirituals, and even jazz-based tunes. Broonzy became something of a bridge to the future of Chicago Blues, the Electric Blues, as well. During the folk revival of the late 1940s, Broonzy began touring with I Come for to Sing, a folk music revue that also included figures like Studs Terkel. This directly led to Broonzy touring Europe in 1951, where he became an enormous success as a live musician.
The European stint launched Broonzy into an increased prominence in the American folk and blues scene, which saw Broonzy teaming up with such legendary figures as Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. At this point, he was able to fully dedicate himself to his musical craft without having to rely on other financial sources. Broonzy got back in touch with his solo acoustic country blues roots, and also continued to perform Stateside and in Europe. The presence of Broonzy in Britain made a huge impact on what became the burgeoning British Rhythm & Blues scene. Even John Lennon has listed Big Bill Broonzy as an important influence on his formative years. Broonzy became an international touring sensation, playing everywhere from South America to Africa to the Pacific Region. Unfortunately, by 1958, Big Bill Broonzy succumbed to a battle with throat cancer and passed away. However, in contemporary times Big Bill Broonzy’s career is looked at as a landmark one in the blues, and he remains to this day an essential and ideal exemplar of the style of blues known as the country blues.
-Brian M. Reiser,