Friday, March 26, 2010

Big Bill Broonzy and Country Blues

Originally posted on January 9, 2009

Big Bill Broonzy was one of the last of the folk-county bluesmen, one of the original players to follow in the wake of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the others. He recorded through the thirties and forties, gradually going to a more electric style until the early fifties, when he reverted to the acoustic roots of his music, becoming a part of the folk revival movement. He enjoyed genuine success in his remaining years before leaving this world in 1958. Sometime in that later period he recorded an album for Folkways Records, Broonzy Sings Country Blues. I believe I was in 7th grade when I stumbled upon a copy of the disk, rather badly warped, for something like ten cents at a local junk shop. I had learned by that point that guys who had nicknames like “Little,” “Blind,” “Big,” “Fats,” etc., were bound to be cool, so based on such a slim bit of guidance I picked the record up. Only half of the disk would play, the other skipping relentlessly in response to the warp, but what was playable got my attention!

Years went by, I had sold off my original record collection to help pay for school, Folkways' director Moses Asch had passed away, and the record went out of my memory. The Smithsonian acquired the Folkways catalog a number of years ago and began reissuing everything—as a regular CD issue, a CD-Rom dub, or a download. I remembered that old Broonzy record and sure enough, it was again available. So here I hear it all once more after so many years, this time without the skips, and hey, it still makes for great listening. Bill plays some very nice picking guitar, is in strong voice and covers a repertory of gems. He was in full flower, despite the years of scuffling that were behind him. So it’s something to check out if you have the interest. Set your search engine to “Folkways,” get to the Smithsonian site and you’ll find that and a zillion other recordings of folk, world, and generally wonderful things.

[Update: Since I originally wrote this review, the album mentioned seems to have gone out of print. However, the Folkways anthology Trouble in Mind appears to cover virtually that entire album and some other cuts as well.]

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