Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Big Bill Broonzy

In the Forties and Fifties there were a handful of bluesmen who became favourites of the hip White establishment particularly those who favoured American folk music and the Black sub-variant thereof, and they were Leadbelly, Josh White, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy. These guys knew the blues and perhaps played quite deep blues in their time but were also successful with White audiences because they sanitised the blue, removed the salaciousness and deep emotion and presented it almost as a pop music.

Big Bill, for example, was well-known as a musician in the Thirties for the Bluebird label, recording blues tunes with small groups that had much more in common with the small group jazz popular at the time than with the typical Delta bluesman. Big Bill's very urban, very commercial blues was very much a musical style that appealed to his audience and not quite a serious expression of any kind of mental state even if being Black in an American city was only slightly better than being Black in the rural countryside of the Deep South.

When he was a young guy, Big Bill was a professional musician who made his living by entertaining his people; he played for dancing and not for contemplation.

Some years later, when his commercial value had waned, he was "discovered" by trendy White loves of Black music, still somewhat of a taboo, and they were some times more purist than truly at one with the music they purported to love and to support, yet I have always thought it had more to do with fashion and the assumption that the so-called love of blues music was more of an intellectual discourse than a really visceral experience.

This was why the British blues and trad jazz aficionados were so appalled by the noise and energy of the Muddy Waters band when he first played in the UK. The British blues fans thought of blues as a quaint folk type of music played by one guy and a guitar, telling tales of a hard life and unfaithful women, not some electrified band concerned with entertaining their audience in the same way they entertained back home.

Broonzy came from the musical background of blues as popular entertainment and not some 'authentic' style practised by unsophisticated back country bluesmen. That aspect of his career had gone forever and he quickly realised that a new career beckoned if he were prepared to change his style and adopt the guise of the type of blues musician approved of by the White impresarios who would market him and of the audience he would be playing to. He picked up his guitar, learned some country blues and suddenly he was lionised all over Europe as the very epitome of the authentic bluesmen. Apparently he lapped up the attention, and who could blame him, and had an excellent last few years of his life, a bit like the resuscitation of Muddy Waters in the late Seventies.

The music from the Bluebird years showcase Broonzy as a musician who can master a number of styles and it is mostly joyful blues, sometimes racy and salacious, sometimes more serious, always played by an ensemble of musicians who probably know more about infusing their jazz with blues than sounding like anything that came from the Delta. One feels that the Delta musicians, even if they were employing the technique of composing new blues from putting together bits and pieces from a standard selection of licks and phrases, more or less reflected the truth of their lives, where Big Bill Broonzy's urban blues tunes sound composed from scratch with an intellectual, musicological approach rather than as life experiences.

Lots of overly serious White blues enthusiasts saw blues as a pure folk expression of the musician who wants to make art out of his life, whereas in fact most blues musicians of the very old school, the guys from the Mississippi Delta, for example, made music as a way of getting out of manual, low paying labour, or to supplement the income from manual labour and not as some expression of high art. The folk art aspect of it was a pure invention of the intellectualised approach to blues appreciation by people who mostly knew the blues because they listened to records and not because they went to rent parties or Saturday night fish fries, or visited juke joints where the audience wanted to eat, drink and be merry, and wanted the musicians to play loud and long for dancing and maybe fighting, not to make art. Those audiences were not sitting down, quietly and reverently taking in the subtle nuances of the lyrics or instrumental backing, they shouted, argued, laughed and had a good time. It was only much later on his career that Big Bill Broonzy found himself playing to audiences who were so well-behaved you would hardly know they were there until they politely applauded at the end of numbers. No rowdiness or rambunctiousness here.

And, being no fool, Big Bill soon realised that he had to present his craft, and his life, as art in order to keep his new set of patrons happy, and by all accounts he did. He had entertained his ghetto audience in one way and he now adapted his act to entertain his uptown audience in another way; but one way or another it was all schtick.

I love the story of how Muddy Waters brought his electric band to Britain on his first visit there, because he heard the English audiences were keen on the blues, and then freaked them out by the sheer loud energy of his superb Chicago band, when the average British blues lover thought of the blues as a quite folk-style performed by some old guy and his acoustic guitar. When Muddy returned some years later, having learnt his lesson, he left the band at home and packed only his acoustic guitar, happily prepared to be the folk blues guy he thought the Limeys wanted. Much to his surprise fashions had changed and now the audience was annoyed precisely because he did not have his Chicago band with him.

The point of this is also to demonstrate that blues is as much subject to popular fads and taste as any other popular music and that the average bluesman had to, and still has to, keep abreast of what his audience wanted from time to time. From this perspective Big Bill Broonzy was no sell out or cynical seeker of the White man's moolah when he turned all down-home and folksy. This was his time, a bit like the revitalisation of Muddy Waters in the late Seventies, or the rediscovery of Mississippi John Hurt or Fred McDowell, who were genuinely country bluesmen, and Big Bill knew a commercial opportunity when he saw one and had been after that pot of gold his entire career in music.



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