WUMB July Program Guide

BIG BILL BROONZY

First and foremost before getting into anything else, I want to thank you for your generosity during the Spring Fundraiser this year. I know things are not easy for every one of us on many levels, so your support means the world to all of us at WUMB. You sure know how to make us feel like we’re doing a good thing for you! Thank you, we’ll keep it up.

Big Bill Broonzy. Man, he’s one of my favorites. The guy was so important to the development of American folk and blues music in the first half of the 20th century, and yet I feel like he is still overlooked. Maybe that’s because he passed away right before the folk revival of the early 60s caught on, or maybe it’s because not too many people play his music today or interpret his songs. Who knows? But on Friday, June 26th the Morning Show will celebrate Big Bill for an hour starting at 9 AM.

I should correct myself and say Big Bill played folk music, period. After all, in his words, he said every song he knows is a folk song: he never heard any horses sing ’em! He was born in the late 19th century (or early 20th depending on your source) and was raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He served in Europe during the First World War and moved to Chicago upon returning home. He started his musical life as a fiddler, but quickly switched to guitar, and boy what a guitar player he was! I swear those guys had different hands back then. They were able to play with tremendous force and volume while still being precise and melodic! We’ll showcase some of that ability. His singing, too. Oh man.

During the 20s and 30s Big Bill helped to create the urban, more-sophisticated, and combo-based Chicago blues sound that was a step beyond the solo male troubadour styles that were coming from the deep South from artists like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Chicago blues did not start when Muddy Waters arrived more than two decades later. Muddy himself reminded us of that; he recorded a whole album of Broonzy songs a year or two after Big Bill passed away in the late 50s.

Big Bill was also a survivor. When opportunity knocked, he answered. In 1938 John Hammond Sr., the man who launched the stars of Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian (and later Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen), organized a 1938 Carnegie Hall concert celebrating African American music up to that point called From Spirituals to Swing. Hammond wanted Robert Johnson to perform as a representation of the blues music from the deep South, but what he didn’t know was that Johnson was dead the prior year from running afoul of a jealous lover. Who was there to fill in even though he was nowhere near the Delta scene? Big Bill Broonzy!

That eventually opened the door for to Big Bill to transition from slick, suit and fedora-capped cosmopolitan, to overall-wearing folkie during the very beginnings of the 50s folk revival. Once again, Bill was there before most. He performed with Pete Seeger for audiences on university campuses, wrote and performed songs that championed the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, and documented massive catalogs of his songs and stories of early 20th century American music for Folkways Records. We have a huge debt to him for doing that.

Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, and others have recorded Broonzy songs over the decades and done a great service in keeping his music alive. We’ll try our best to doing a little of that too on the Morning Show on June 26th. Hope to catch you then!

Thanks,

~ Brendan

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