The man behind the mystery that was Big Bill Broonzy

I was in 81 Renshaw Street recently with a friend, leafing through the LP’s, when I chanced upon one that really jumped out at me: Black Brown and White by Big Bill Broonzy. As I tried to explain its significance, it became quickly apparent that my friend had never heard of him and equally it dawned upon me that other than this record, I didn’t know too much about the man behind the song. I knew he was considered one of America’s most popular blues musicians – and an acknowledged influence on the likes of Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend – and that he hailed from Mississippi but everything else seemed a mystery. As I began to delve further however, the story of this man began to unravel with many a twist and turn, just like that State’s namesake river…

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Broonzy the singer-songwriter played many a tune and this extended to the many stories he told about himself, most of which it transpired were pure embellishment. First up is that his name wasn’t Broonzy. He was in fact born Lee Conly Bradley in Jefferson County, Arkansas, approximately 60 miles southeast of the State capital, Little Rock rather than Scott, Mississippi. Knowing both areas relatively well I could understand why musically he may have wanted to emphasise the Delta over the Ozarks. But then there’s further confusion over his date of birth. He often claimed to have been born in 1893 with a twin sister Laney although research suggests he was in fact born in 1903 and his ‘twin’ was in fact four years older than him having been born in 1898, but what’s a year or few between friends – no one seems to have ever really got to the bottom of that one.

Then there are the claims that his parents were slaves. Well, it is likely that Frank Bradley and Mittie Belcher were born into slavery but it is not certain. We do know that he was one of seventeen children, and that he started out on the violin before switching to acoustic guitar and playing country blues. He also claimed to have served in the US Army in France between 1918 and 1919 although his true age would suggest this was unlikely. In fact, when he spoke and sang about these experiences, he was more than likely picking up on the stories told by returning black soldiers to Arkansas/Mississippi, and into which, as he was prone to do, he inserted himself.

It is on his musical journey though that we can start to record with some confidence. By the 1920’s he had moved to Chicago where he began carving a unique musical niche for himself that encapsulated melded folk, country blues, ragtime, spirituals, and hokum: a style of comedic blues spawned in the late Twenties. He was by now an accomplished guitarist and with a real sense of showmanship he was a popular entertainer amongst black audiences and from 1930, under the moniker Famous Hokum Boys, Broonzy and friends were recording numerous ‘party blues’ albums.

In December 1938, he was one of the principal solo performers – standing in for Robert Johnson who had been murdered in Mississippi in August – at the first ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Identified in the programme only as ‘Big Bill’, it noted that this was ‘his first appearance before a white audience’. By 1940 he had written the blues standard ‘Key to the Highway’, since covered by the Rolling Stones, Derek and the Dominoes, and Led Zeppelin, amongst others.

By the 1950’s he had switched to the electric guitar and was captivating audiences across America and Europe with what became known as Chicago post-war blues. Following a performance in Holland in 1953, he was taken to a pub where he was persuaded to sing a few more songs – but only after he had been reassured that he wouldn’t be arrested for being black. Like many black artists before him, he felt very much at home in Europe which was more accepting of colour, and he eventually got involved with a Dutch girl and they had a son.

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Back in America, this king of the Chicago blues scene was coming under pressure from a younger generation of blues performers and Broonzy was forced to change his musical direction yet again. Chicago was now home to a growing folk scene fuelled by young, white intellectuals and music was beginning to be used as a tool for social change, and which led to Broonzy writing what would become his memorable anthem: ‘Black, Brown and White Blues’.

Broonzy’s last recording session was in 1957, thirty years after his first. Unbeknown to anybody, he was fighting throat cancer at the time of the recording and went into hospital the day after the final session. The first operation took away his voice. He died a year later in August 1958 in an ambulance taking him back to the very same hospital.

His funeral demonstrated real harmony to the end with mixed pallbearers – three black and three white – including Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Studs Terkel, and Win Stracke. Gospel great Mahalia Jackson sang a hymn. But the last word went to Big Bill: as the crowd sat at the funeral parlour, the room filled with the sound of Broonzy singing a spiritual from that last recording session a year earlier.

And it seems only fair that this article gives him the last word too – the lyrics of that famous song that helped catapult the civil rights movement in the American South but which sadly still resonate today:

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This little song that I’m singin’ about
People you know it’s true
If you’re black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you

They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I was in a place one night
They was all having fun
They was all byin’ beer and wine
But they would not sell me none

They said if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But if you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

Me and a man was workin’ side by side
This is what it meant
They was paying him a dollar an hour
And they was paying me fifty cent

They said if you was white, ‘t should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But as you black, m-mm boy, git back git back git back

I went to an employment office
Got a number ‘n’ I got in line
They called everybody’s number
But they never did call mine

They said if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But as you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I helped build this country
And I fought for it too
Now I can guess you can see
What a black man have to do

They said if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But as you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I hope when sweet victory
With my plough and hoe
Now I want you to tell me brother
What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

Now if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

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