The Chicago Blues: Big Bill Broonzy

The genre of Blues derives from folk music and is a secular version created by African Americans in the 1920s. Blues arose as a genre post-slavery, as African Americans wanted music that moved away from Negro Spirituals and work songs, but that still sounded distinctly their own. Blues can be categorized by the use of guitar, brass, and wind instruments as well as “blue” notes that aren’t on the standard scale but can be traced back to negro spirituals.

A prominent artist in Blues is Big Bill Broonzy, who was quite an imaginative character.

Who is Broonzy?

The origins of Big Bill Broonzy are about as complicated and unclear as the origins of Blues. He claimed that he was born in 1893, but his “twin” sister– who later is revealed to be 4 years his elder– claims that he was born in 1898. Researchers have concluded that Broonzy was actually born in 1903, but no one can be fully sure. He also claimed to be in the military, which a majority of his songs detailed, but it was later revealed that he was never in the military at all and instead pulled inspiration for his songs from the stories of black soldiers. Even the name “Big Bill Broonzy” is a myth as he was born to the name Lee Conly Bradley.

The first instrument that Bill owned was a violin, gifted to him by his mother’s brother, although records are unsure if he actually existed. While young, Bill worked as a violinist in the church and would also play gigs as a fiddler around Mississippi. As he aged, he went on to play in clubs around Little Rock and would soon move to Chicago where he would occasionally play with Papa Charlie Jackson. Broonzy became an established musician and was a pioneer in the Chicago Blues scene and the small group blues sound that defined it.

His Influence

Big Bill Broonzy was a key player in the shift from country blues to the electric blues of the 1950s. Much of his appeal was that in the post-slavery context, and with a major black migration to the North, many felt they could relate to things which he sang about. He brought the country sound of Blues to the North and revamped it. He was a prolific recording artist, garnering much praise throughout his career and he never failed to help similar artists to gain popularity, allowing those he saw promise in (like Muddy Waters) to open for his shows. He was such an influence that in 1960 Muddy Waters decided to pay his respects by releasing the album “Muddy Waters Sings: ‘Big Bill'” featuring some of Broonzy’s biggest hits.

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