BIG BILL BROONZY – he’s one of those names you hear in hallowed tones, whispered and discussed on forums and in the music press, alongside such company as Robert Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as being right in there at the roots of modern black music; in the blues, the devil’s music, which of course gave birth to R’n’B gave birth to soul gave birth to funk gave birth to … you get the idea.
But for all that historical embedding, he may not be someone you’ve actually stopped by and heard. He departed our worldly sphere as long ago as August 1958; macabre to think, but there can’t be too many people alive who can actually say they’ve met him or witnessed him perform.
And performance, for this generation of musicians, is all; O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as well as being a fun yarn with George Clooney and The Odyssey-referring storylines, also gave a really interesting sideways look at the nature of musical recording of the time. Witness The Soggy Bottom Boys crowded around that single, suspended mic; it’s a different world, it really is. It’s performance laid down in the moment.
Which is why it’s properly great when a new live recording surfaces, especially from an artist so long gone; so ladies and gentlemen, be upstanding if you would for Org Music, who have lovingly remastered and pressed a recording of Big Bill, captured live in Nottingham in 1957, the year before he died.
A little autobiographical note, now; Big Bill Broonzy was actually born one of 17 children in either Mississippi or, recent research suggests, perhaps Arkansas; in either 1893 or 1903. Mystery surrounds his early years, which is of course perfect for a bluesman; he began as a fiddler at so-called “two-stagers”, events at which, in the days of American racial segregation, whites and blacks mixed in the crowd, but had seperate stages for entertainment.
He switched to guitar and began playing a more country form of blues for black audiences; moved to Chicago, and signed for Paramount, releasing his first vinyl in 1927. His career didn’t really get going until the 1930s and by the 40s he was at the forefront of the modern blues charge, working in and weaving strands of spirituals, jazz, country and ragtime; a modern fusion music.
American country bands had been touring the UK since the 1930s, but it wasn’t until postwar that blues artists began visiting, largely through the agency of British jazz legend Chris Barber. Big Bill – so called because of his massive 6ft 6in frame – first came across the Pond in 1952. The Nottingham performance dates from five years later, as Chris recalled in a 2005 interview for fROOTS Magazine:
“In ’57 we brought Big Bill and Brother John Sellers over. The union thing was a problem. We didn’t really know how to get around that, the fact that you couldn’t bring musicians into Britain from America. It wasn’t allowed for them to play here, they wouldn’t get a work permit.
“You could bring in singers: [they] belonged to the American Guild Of Variety Artists, we suddenly realised. When we knew that singers were allowed we thought ‘Good, we can do that!’ and we brought in Big Bill; we knew that Big Bill travelled and did things.
“It’s all very well saying ‘Get somebody’ but you need to know how to locate them or even if they would be willing to do it … Bill Wilcox of the 100 Club had got them over … so we knew how to get hold of him.”
So what of the recording? No scraping of the barrel, this; no muted, muffled, low-fidelity rescue. Okay, it might just, to our spoilt 21st-century ears, be lacking in the top end; but look, this live in a country just emerging from the Suez crisis, two years into rock ‘n’ roll, predating the ascendancy of The Beatles by five years. It really, truly is a different country, the past.
What the recording really captures is an artist steeped absolutely in his chosen traditions, and both playing and cooking up a storm. It also captures what a great raconteur and showman he was; he has stagecraft, warmly interacting with a devout audience. The set opens with the traditional gospel of “This Train”, here given the appropriate chug which would inspire a thousand skifflers countrywide; before a masterful reading of “Trouble In Mind”, the 1924 gospel blues belter; Big Bill’s voice really soars; you can hear a pin drop.
A passage of deep blues follows: his own ode to a lover, “Willie Mae”; the absolute power of “In The Evening”, on which Big Bill shows an absolute mastery of dynamics, his voice, the guitar, dropping to a hush for an enthralled gathering; the precision of a lament from the common man.
He picks up the pace for the almost-pop blues of “Glory Of Love”, and the wistful country inflections of “Midnight Special”; shows the breadth of his musical chops with the spiritual “What Kind Of Man Jesus Is”, which he leads into with his views on the nature of a folk song: “To me all songs is folk songs, because horses don’t sing it.” You can sense he enchants as a person and a performer; it’s easy to forget just how deep a cultural exchange this is in our days of instant fibre-optic gratification.
“Keep Your Hand Off It” is a salacious ragtime, which he calls “a jealous man’s song” – “Keep your big mitts down,” he proclaims. “Nobody’s Business”, a song Bill first heard in the family, sees him reaching for a higher key and a simple turnaround that carries so much experience and sharing in its bopping exhortation. He belts such life out of a simple acoustic guitar and his voice properly soars into the song and out to our ears all these decades on. “Hey Bub!” comes with a fascinating anecdotal preamble, and a wry spoken lyric that evokes a simpler musical conception, a diarising jam, the life as lived; stream of consciousness you might call it, were you conceptually precious.
He leads us back, through humour, to “The Feasting Table”, a Baptist gospel, and for all the preambling laughter there’s a real connection to a song-expression of feeling that’s lost to nearly all of us today. And then it’s into the spurned-lover standard “C C Rider”, first committed to bakelite by Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey back in 1924 and later taken on by everyone from Elvis to The Animals. It’s an absolute crowd-pleaser. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” – you may, if you’re used to it as the rugger crowd anthem, be sobered by the depth of emotion that can be brought to it by one man who’s lived deep and a lone guitar, armed mainly with a real understanding of the song … and then he picks it up to a singalong stomp to show how else it can be done.
He wraps the set in the ragged and yearning folk of “Goodnight Irene”, the standard picked up by Alan Lomax in Louisiana State Pen in 1933. His voice is all the more expressive for the edge of hoarseness as he lets it flow through him.
It’s a truly fascinating and moving document of an artist so few on our shores were privileged to see. It’s many musics, not just what you may simply conceive of as the blues; and all of them musics of the heart and the soul, musics not of commodification or co-ordinated campaigns. It’s music that channels direct: funny, sorrowful, askance, lamenting, self-soothing. Music as a real thing that real humans wrote to achieve catharsis. And that connects us, perhaps, to a simpler and truer musical time. On that basis it’s damn close to an essential purchase, if you have the kinda soul that true music triggers.
Big Bill Broonzy’s The Midnight Special: Live In Nottingham 1957 is out now on vinyl on Org Music and may be purchased via their webstore or at all good music retailers.