Big Bill Broonzy – A Brief History

A young Big Bill Broonzy

The American blues guitarist Lee Conley Bradley or Big Bill Broonzy as he was better known was born on 26th June 1893. Sometimes the dates given for his birth vary. His twin sister Laney claims he was born in 1898 and the blues historian Robert Reismann suggests a date of 1903 for his birth.

Either way, Broonzy’s place of birth was Scott, Mississippi…actually, no…again, this has been disputed and his place of birth has been suggested as Jefferson County, Arkansas. He died on August 14 (or 15th) 1958.  Big Bill’s first instrument was a home made cigar-box violin which he played in local churches and at picnics and parties around Scott, Mississippi where he was living with his family.

Jefferson County, Arkansas

During his early life Bill worked as a share cropper and a preacher until he was drafted into the army and served for two years in Europe during World War One. After his return from the war he moved north to Chicago.

Around about this time Bill changed his instrument from violin to guitar. His guitar teacher and mentor in Chicago was the early American songster Papa Charlie Jackson who performed in the early minstrel and medicine shows which were popular at the time.

Bills first recording, ‘Big Bills Blues” was released by Paramount records in 1927.

1930’s and 40’s

Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s Bill embarked upon a performing and recording career which would make him one of the foremost exponents of American folk blues of the twentieth century.

In 1938 Bill’s career received a huge boost when he was included on the bill of John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. He was asked to perform as a replacement for Robert Johnson who had recently been murdered aged 27 in Greenwood, Mississippi. Bill was introduced to the audience as a guitar playing sharecropper – when in reality he had been playing and recording for a number of years prior to this appearance.

Promo for John Hammond's from Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall

Late 1940’s to 50’s

Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s Bill continued songwriting and playing. He expanded his repertoire into Ragtime, Chicago Blues, Jazz, Folk and Spirituals.

During the mid 1940’s Bill recorded songs such as ‘Where the Blues Began’ and ‘Key to the Highway’ which would be a huge influence on the post-war Chicago blues of artists such as Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Freddie King etc.

Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy in Chicago

Later Career

In the 1950’s Bill toured throughout Europe to critical acclaim. During this time in Europe, especially in the UK, there was a rise in popularity of Folk and Jazz music. Bill was booked to play in many of the folk, jazz and coffee houses which were around at the time. These clubs preferred him to play the solo folk blues music of his early years as they thought this was a more ‘authentic sound’.

Bill on stage in Europe, 1950's

Bill obliged and consequently, this sound had a considerable influence on the burgeoning British Folk revival and also the British Blues boom of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Musicians such as Bert Jansch, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John Lennon and Pete Townsend cited Bill as a major influence on their early careers.

Bill was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1958 and died in August of that year. As a gesture of racial harmony Bill wanted three white pallbearers and three black pallbearers – Muddy Waters who had been mentored by Bill was one of the pallbearers.

Playing Style

Bill usually played without picks on his right hand. He used the bare nail and skin of his thumb to create a pulsating thumb rhythm. This recalled the early playing of the Mississippi blues men and is a more primitive form of bass accompaniment than that used by later artists such as Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

Much of the time Bills thumb would brush across more than one bass string at a time – similar to what Merle Travis did with his plastic thumb pick. Bill would use his first finger to pick the melody or accompanying notes while occasionally using his second and third finger to add more notes. Very occasionally Bill would use a flat-pick when playing single string melodies combined with strummed chords.

The following video shows Bill using all these techniques.

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