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©1997 Elijah Wald (originally published
in Acoustic Guitar)
Jesse Fuller was unique, and he worked hard at
keeping it that way. One of America's great musical nonconformists, he
played a big, 12-string guitar, chugging harmonica, raucous kazoo,
cymbal, washboard and fotdella, and called himself the "Lone Cat," a
romping one-man band. A singer, musician, composer, inventor and jack
of all trades, he was the Bay Area's greatest contribution to the
folk-blues revival, but his musical career reached a long way back
before "San Francisco Bay," the song that catapulted him to national
Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, in 1896. He
never knew his father and lost his mother when he was eight. Adopted by
a local family, he was abused and neglected, and started working at an
early age, breaking rocks in a quarry, toiling in a corn mill, carrying
water for a railroad grading crew, and riding freight trains from job
to job. At age ten, he also started playing guitar. As he later
recalled, his first teacher was a woman who hung out around the
railroad gang and went by the name of Big Estelle. "I'd go up there and
watch her play and she was terrific," he remembered. "She didn't teach
me all 'bout the guitar, just the chords, and I learned the rest
As soon as he felt old enough to make it on his
own, Fuller headed out of the deep South, looking for a better life.
"Hell, I don't like the South at all," he told an interviewer in the
1960s. "If I were in the South now, . . . I'd be dead. I'm too color
blind. Someone pushes me, I'll fight him, I don't care who he is." He
first headed for Cincinatti, then got a job with a circus and began
moving west. By the 1920s, he was in Hollywood, where he set up a shoe
shine stand and, in the course of business, made the acquaintance of
the movie star Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks set him up with a hot dog
stand and gave him a Model T Ford, which Fuller "souped up like a race
car." Fairbanks would sometimes hire Fuller to play at his private
parties, and helped him get work as a movie extra, using him in "The
Thief of Bagdad" among other pictures. As if all of that was not
enough, Fuller developed still another sideline, carving amazingly
lifelike wooden snakes, and worked his way through the depression
selling them for a dollar apiece.
In 1929, Fuller moved up to Oakland, where he
would live for the rest of his life. Once again, he worked a variety of
jobs before making the decision to go into music as a full-time
profession around 1950. At first, he tried to put a band together, but
decided it was too much of a hassle. As he would later explain, "[The
musicians] were all too busy--running around, drinking and gambling."
Instead, he began rigging up ways to be his own accompanist. He put
together a rack that could hold a harmonica, a kazoo and a microphone,
and invented the fotdella, a six-string bass with a modified piano
action that drove felt hammers against the strings. The fotdella, which
he played with his shoeless right foot, was a visual novelty and gave
his music a solid bottom, and he completed the rhythm section by using
his left foot to keep time with either a sock cymbal or another
homemade contraption that scraped a rubber arm across a washboard.
Thus was born the "King of the blues one-man
bands." Fuller became a regular street performer around the Bay Area.
The folk revival had not yet hit, but the West Coast was a hotbed for
New Orleans jazz revivalists, and the trad fans were entranced by his
music. He recorded his first album, a ten-inch LP called Working on the
Railroad with Jesse Fuller, in the early '50s, and spent the rest of
the decade bouncing around a variety of small, jazz-oriented labels.
The music Fuller played ranged from old work
songs, hymns and spirituals to blues, ragtime and pop tunes. He was
what blues fans call a "songster," a performer who could play and sing
anything the audience wanted to hear. Whatever the style, though, once
Fuller had rearranged it for his battery of instruments it bore his own
unmistakeable stamp. Folklorists have sometimes tried to sort out the
songs he wrote from those that were adapted from previous sources, but
that is beside the point. Whether singing a folk ballad like "John
Henry" or a pop chestnut like "Everybody Works But Father," he sounded
only like Jesse Fuller.
Adept as he was at reshaping older material,
Fuller always prided himself on his abilities as a writer. Al Young,
the poet and novelist, who knew Fuller in the early '60s, recalls going
over to see him at his sister's house in Oakland, and being shown his
basement studio. "He went there every morning, and spent three hours
writing his tunes," Young says. "He'd set up his fotdella and all of
his stuff and sit there and compose with a tape recorder, and get his
stuff down. Everybody thinks that he's a guy who just kind of casually
knocked these things out, but he listened to everybody, he was very
aware that the folk movement was his chance to be heard, and he would
go down there every day and write. "
While the fotdella might be what stopped crowds on
the street, what made Fuller a national figure was his songwriting,
especially his masterpiece and theme song, "San Francisco Bay Blues."
He recorded the song for every label that signed him, and soon it was
covered by a plethora of young folkies, becoming a ubiquitous standard.
With its success, Fuller took to the road, touring in a big Nash
station wagon that also served him as a makeshift hotel, and playing
coffeehouses, colleges and folk festivals across the country, then
taking ship for a European tour during which, in his words, he "got
more people than the Rolling Stones."
That choice of comparison says a lot about him.
Unlike most of the older bluesmen who appeared on the folk circuit in
the 1960s, Fuller was at home in the present, in tune with the
contemporary scene and fully in charge of his life, music, and
business. He knew what he was doing, and knew he was good at it, and it
did not surprise him when the young, white folksingers started coming
around to admire and learn from him. And learn they did. Bob Dylan's
harmonica work shows more of Fuller's influence than anyone else's, and
he paid tribute by recording Fuller's "You're No Good" on his first
album. Mark Spoelstra used to drop by for guitar lessons. As for all
the people who sang "San Francisco Bay," from Jack Elliott on down,
there are simply too many of them to count.
Fuller died in 1976, but he left behind a lot of
good music and good memories. Friends still tell stories about his
quirky self-reliance, his insistence on driving everywhere, even to the
point of refusing to go to Europe unless he could drive his car onto
the boat and make the trip in his usual style, and the ingenuity with
which he not only invented a slew of instruments but wired all of them
so that he could plug the entire mass into a house p.a. system and wail
away like a rock band. He was a true original and, two decades after
his death, his music is still as exuberant and entertaining as anything
the Archive Contents page
PERRY LEDERMAN OBITUARY
©1995 Elijah Wald (originally published
in Sing Out!)
Perry Lederman, who died May 15 at his home in Woods
Hole, Massachusetts, after a long battle with cancer,
was one of the little-known legends of the folk revival.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, he was inspired to learn guitar
after seeing Tom Paley playing in Washington Square
Park and quickly became one of the foremost fingerstyle
players in the city, exploring and reviving traditional
styles in the company of friends like Danny Kalb and
Roy Berkeley. He was also a peerless seeker-out of vintage
3/4-size Martin guitars, which he continued to favor
throughout his life.
Perry continued to play during a brief college
stint in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then moved to Berkeley, California, where
he became a leading folk performer in partnership with writer and poet
Al Young. His playing, notable for its passion and imagination, and an
astonishing, controlled vibrato, was a major influence on later West
Coast players like John Fahey and frequent housemate and jamming
partner Michael Bloomfield. It was during this period that he made his
only issued recording, on a Bay Area sampler for the Arhoolie label.
More interested in the music itself than in commercial success, Perry
put the guitar aside just as his West Coast followers began to receive
national attention, preferring to spend eight years studying sarod as a
student and friend of Indian master Ali Akbar Khan.
Returning to guitar, he brought depth and control
learned in his Indian classical studies and applied these to the music
he had always loved, the classic fingerpicking styles of Elizabeth
Cotton, Gary Davis and Sam McGhee. In the early 1980s he came back
East, and for the last 13 years lived in Woods Hole with his wife,
Joan, and daughter, Rayna. He played mostly in his home and at the
coffee house he booked at the Fishmonger Cafe, where he presented old
friends like Dave Van Ronk and Rory Block. He also mastered the art of
piano tuning, frequently teaming up with his musical companion and
teacher, David Stanwood. His playing continued to grow and develop, as
he constantly found new approaches to his favorite tunes.
Music was Perry's religion, be it Indian classical, traditional
fingerpicking, or the gospel singing of Mahalia Jackson
or Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, who performed
his marriage. He continued to play until the end, and
the soulfulness and depth of his musicianship remained
undiminished. In April he recorded some magnificent
pieces for a planned album, and in the week before his
death he gave a final brief concert from his bed for
old friend Ramblin' Jack Elliott. All of us who had
a chance to play with him and learn from him over the
years will be forever grateful for his kean musical
sense, his willingness to pass on whatever he knew,
and his friendship.
During his last year, Perry and I compiled
a CD of his work, drawing on his old tapes, concert
recordings, and some new recordings he made to fill
the gaps. It can be ordered from this site, by going
to my music and albums
the Archive Contents page
PAUL GEREMIA INTERVIEW
©1994 Elijah Wald (originally published
Among acoustic blues players, Paul Geremia is
virtually in a class by himself. While remaining within the country
blues tradition, he has developed a sound and approach that is
completely personal and contemporary. His singing mixes the influence
of Willie McTell and Lemon Jefferson with jazz phrasing and an edge of
wry humor. His harmonica lines have a punch and energy that few rack
players can approach. On guitar, he is quite simply the best acoustic
blues picker around; whether playing straight or slide, six or
twelve-string, he combines an encyclopedic collection of classic styles
with imaginative touches that are all his own.
Geremia was interviewed in his Newport, Rhode
Island home, in between refretting an old Gibson guitar and chatting
with folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who had parked his mobile home
in Geremia's lot for the night. Previous conversations had focused on
Geremia's life and playing. This time, he set the agenda.
Anything particular you'd like to talk about?
Yes, I think it would be nice to see more
attention paid to acoustic blues. I'm disappointed with the fact that
the so-called blues resurgence pretty much pays lip service to the
acoustic music and is basically centered around electric bands, a lot
of which are much too loud and are just basically rock bands. It's
reached a point where everybody's trying to capitalize on the blues
So, what is it that you're not seeing enough of?
I'm not seeing enough of people digging deep. I'm
not trying to say that I expect people to try to do what I'm trying to
do-- it can be done both in the world of electric blues and in the
world of acoustic blues. I'd rather see people digging into the older
styles and coming up with a more unique electric sound, rather than
sounding like a rehash of B.B. King or Albert King or, God forbid,
Stevie Ray Vaughan. It seems like everybody's just picking up on what
they did, instead of going back to develop a unique style like the
originators had. But, then again, maybe there just isn't that much room
for innovation in the music; maybe you innovate too much and it changes
it. I'm curious as to whether we're just stuck with what we've got for
the duration. Is it just gonna be a situation where we're gonna listen
to Muddy Waters clones--which I wouldn't mind so much--or are there
gonna be people who come up with something new?
I think it's unfortunate that the blues scene
can't be as healthy as the bluegrass scene, for example. They've got
people playing electric and acoustic instruments, running the gamut
from singer-songwriters to traditional people to new age instrumental
types. I get sick and tired of going to so-called blues festivals where
basically people are there to get drunk and boogie to loud music. I
mean, I like to get drunk and boogie too, but the acoustic players
always get put on during the daytime and then the bands get put on at
night. It's not fair to the audience and it's not fair to the acoustic
musicians, because there are acoustic players who can get on there and
blow people away in a night time concert, and acoustic instruments were
meant to be danced to just as well. That's what the music was about.
They didn't have to have amplifiers tuned up to maximum and have their
eardrums busted in order to dance to it, you know?
Where do you see yourself and your work in all of
Well, I'm trying to write songs that remain true
to the blues tradition and I'm still trying to learn more of the old
Clearly, for you blues doesn't just mean the
It's not just blues; I'm basically into old music.
Stuff that was both played by black musicians and white musicians.
There's a lot of stuff that was part of the blues tradition, like some
of the country ragtime stuff and the early jazz stuff. The stuff that
was played by the Mississippi musicians other than the guys that played
blues was string band music; there were a lot of banjos and fiddles and
all kinds of things going on down there.
I like it all, you know. I just find myself
getting bored with hearing the same thing over and over again. I'd much
rather hear interesting acoustic musicians than some skinny white guy
with an electric guitar, playing it too loud and singing testosterone
lyrics--this whole macho guitar gunslinger bullshit. I can't stand
that; it's boring to me.
And there's so much else there. My basic complaint
is that people seem to be recycling a lot of the same stuff when so
much of the world of blues music has not been recycled at all. I guess
it's because it's difficult stuff to learn, and it's easier to pick up
on what's being played more frequently. If I was just learning, I might
be in the same boat, I don't know.
When you were starting out, the blues scene was
much more a part of the folk scene, rather than a scene unto itself.
That's right, to a large extent. The folk revival
was the crutch that the blues leaned on through the entire '60s and it
brought the best blues music that was known to as many people as
possible. Unfortunately, the folk situation now is pretty much
dominated by the singer-songwriter tradition, but I think there's still
a healthy interest in the acoustic blues.
It seems to me that you bring those parts
together, whereas a lot of younger blues players or singer-songwriters
are strictly in one or the other camp.
The singer-songwriter tradition seems to be wide
open; some people sound like tin pan alley show tunes and some sound
like Woody Guthrie. They come from incredible extremes. What I'm doing
is another aspect of that; I'm just writing songs from a different
musical orientation. But I consider myself lucky to be just as
interested in the tradition from which my music springs, because I can
also draw sustenance from the traditional music that I mix in with my
own songs. I wouldn't want to be in the bag of these people who feel
they have to do all their own material, because I think that is also
So what do you feel good about these days?
I feel good about the fact that the Mississippi
Crossroads Blues Festival's coming up and I'll get a chance to see
Eugene Powell down there again; he's one of the few older musicians who
are still doing it. I feel good about the fact that I'm still alive and
feel relatively healthy. And it's still fun. The new record has helped
a lot, and it got nominated for a Handy award. I'm playing more
festivals than ever before. I'm also real happy about the Bruno
12-string that I fixed up. That keeps me up; sometimes when I get
depressed I just think about my guitar and it snaps me out of it. And
I'm just having a good time playing. Despite all my complaints I'm
really glad things are going well, I'm working enough, and my ears
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Archive Contents page
©1998 Elijah Wald (originally published
in The Boston Globe)
At this summer's King Biscuit Blues
Festival, in Helena, Arkansas, the bill included
many of the stars of contemporary blues. The most exciting
performance, though, came from a
man whose name was unknown to all but a few hard-core
aficionados. Larry Johnson, alone on
stage with an acoustic guitar, reminded the audience
of what the blues is all about, singing with
a depth, directness and passion that made most of the
other performers seem like they were just
It was the sort of performance that
has all but disappeared from the contemporary scene,
and a surprise even to people familiar with Johnson's
early work. He has been out of
professional music or working in Europe for most of
the last quarter century, and old fans were
astonished by the way his voice has grown in richness
and emotional power. Teo Leyasmeyer,
manager of Cambridge's House of Blues, was so impressed
that he is bringing Johnson in for
two nights this month, on the 12th and the 26th, for
special, early-evening, sit-down concerts
"I don't drink or smoke anymore and
that does make a difference,'' Johnson says, from
his Harlem home. "I would think that had something to
do with the way I'm singing. But then
again, as the years go by you get more serious in whatever
you're doing and as the old saying
say, practice make perfect. That power comes with time.
It was nothing that I was looking for
or expected, but I got a good number of years behind
me now, and I guess it has developed.''
For those who have not seen him live,
Johnson's reputation largely rests on one album,
1971's "Fast and Funky,'' recently reissued by the Baltimore
Blues Society (poorly distributed,
it is available from the Society at 410/ 329-5825).
It is no exaggeration to call this the most
satisfying acoustic blues record by any artist born
after 1930, the only one that completely
captures the spirit of the classic blues while still
sounding utterly personal.
Johnson says that his unique style
arose from his circumstances. Born in Georgia 60
years ago, he moved to New York in 1959 and fell in
with a group of older Southeasterners
including Brownie McGhee, Alec Seward and, most importantly,
the Rev. Gary Davis. Davis
was a musical giant, teacher of everyone from Blind
Boy Fuller to a generation of young, white
enthusiasts. Johnson often accompanied Davis on harmonica,
mastered his intricate guitar style,
and became to some extent his musical heir.
Johnson is the first to acknowledge
that taking on Davis's ragtimey, acoustic sound was
an unusual choice for a young African American. "When
you take a look at the black guys, we
have to do what pays off now,'' he says. "There's no
mama and daddy to run to, of any wealth.
They're becoming there now, like with the Guy Davises
[the blues-playing son of Ossie Davis
and Ruby Dee], but that's not my age group. So most
of them went to the B.B. King styles and
the styles that were paying off.
"Me, I didn't particularly care about
that. I've always been the self-independent type
person and I never was one to go with the crowd of my
age. The way I got involved was just by
being around Brownie and Davis and all of them, and
it was just a way of life. I wasn't seeking
to become an entertainer or seeking anything whatsoever.
That just happened in my life.''
Johnson attracted some attention
among 1960s blues revivalists, and recorded for
several small labels, but his career never really took
off and, by the mid-1970s, he had pretty
much quit. "I wasn't getting the work that my competitors
was getting, and I wasn't getting
nothing out of performing,'' he says. "So I made a decision
that I wasn't gonna wear myself out.
I had rent to pay and food to buy and at that time I
was married and had kids -- I eventually lost
my family because I wasn't making a living. But I never
did stop playing. Because by then it
was a company keeper to me. It was very personal. But
performing just had nothing in it. I
mean, a lot of people wanted me to perform for nothing,
but nothing leaves nothing.''
At times, Johnson cannot help
sounding bitter. He is openly contemptuous of most
latter-day blues players, and is painfully conscious
of not having received his due. The small
"That's just fine with me,'' he says.
"When you find a person that say they can't get along
with Larry Johnson they did something to cause that.
You see, Larry Johnson would have never
lasted 60 years if he was difficult to get along with.
Not living in the ghetto the way I do;
somebody would eliminate you.
labels that recorded him never spent a lot of money
on production or promotion, and none of
his other albums lived up to the promise of "Fast and
Funky.'' On top of that, his outspoken
views have earned him a reputation for being angry and
hard to deal with.
"I'm a black man doing a black tradition
that was done many years before me, and I'm
just one of the ones that's still carrying it on the
way it should be done. Now, who can like me
for that, fine. Who dislike me for that, fine. But I
see myself as one of the original pioneers of
my day. I see myself like Moses carrying on the tradition
until Christ get here.''
Johnson sees himself as part of a
long line that is by no means limited to blues. "It's
James Brown, he's doing what Paul Robeson and Marian
Anderson and any of them others --
Frederick Douglass -- did. He's standing up for the
black tradition. That don't mean we're
prejudiced; we are just standing up for what we are.
Such as Hank Williams stood up for his
side of the fence, so to speak. I admire a white man
that stand up for white folks, and I admire a
black man that stand up for black folks. All this crossing
the fence thing, I don't particularly
care for that.''
Today, as with all acoustic blues
players, Johnson is playing almost exclusively for
white audiences, but that has in no way mellowed his
stance. "I have a message to bring, and if
the whites listen to it that's fine,'' he says. "As
for black people, there is no way a generation of
people could just totally forget about a heritage. Most
all blacks are well aware of the blues.
But whether they go hear it is another thing, because
you got to say 65 percent of blacks really
don't care to race-mix or to mingle that way. They can't
"Me, I don't even go to these festivals
unless I'm on them. There's nothing for me to do,
there's nobody for me to talk to. Now if these things
were held in the ghetto you would see a
difference. But they're not. They're being held on the
outskirts of town or some little town
where the blacks are outnumbered. You got to look at
it that way.''
Whatever the audience, Johnson is
quick to point out that he has always been a loner,
and he will keep on making his music, his way. "I feel
like I was chosen for this, by something
higher than me,'' he says. "Like this is my calling
whether I like it or not. The difficult thing, as
I look back on it now, was for me to maintain with it
after Davis and all those guys died off.
But by then, I was in my late 30s, early 40s. I looked
around one morning and I was too old to
get a decent job. So I said 'What do I have to make
it through this world?' The only thing I had
was the guitar. So I had to make it work. And today
it must work. That's why I'm determined
every time I go out there, every time I put my hands
on a guitar, to be just a little better than I
Back to the Archive
Big Bill Broonzy
(written in 1999 for the Boston Globe)
By Elijah Wald
Blues music has two histories, one as pop music for
a largely black audience and one as “folk”
or art music for a largely white audience. In the first,
the biggest stars of the pre-World War II era were Bessie
Smith and a dozen other women singers, then Lemon Jefferson,
Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, and Chicago studio players
like Tampa Red. In the second, the most familiar names
are Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, neither of whom had
much success with the African-American public.
Then there was Big Bill Broonzy, who straddled both
worlds and, to do so, created two histories himself.
One of the fascinating things about “The Bill
Broonzy Story,” a three-CD set recently reissued
by Verve, is that, as he sings and talks about his life,
music, and fellow musicians, the picture Broonzy paints
of himself is of an old-time Mississippi blues player,
the guardian of a vanished tradition reaching back to
slavery times. There is no suggestion that he only learned
to play guitar after moving to Chicago, or that, before
most of his white fans first heard of him, he was a
recording star leading a crew of studio players and
driving a Cadillac.
Broonzy started out as a country fiddler around Arkansas,
and moved to Chicago after getting back from World War
I. He worked various jobs before picking up the guitar
and gradually turning himself into the king of the local
blues scene. The discography of “Blues and Gospel
Records 1890-1943” has ten fine-print pages of
records he made under his own name, and he is listed
as accompanist on recordings by 36 other artists. He
was part of a virtual assembly line of musicians grinding
out small-combo records for the Depression-era pop-blues
market, often with piano and horn sections.
Then, in 1939, he appeared at Carnegie Hall on John
Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert.
He was introduced not as one of the biggest stars in
Chicago, but as an ex-sharecropper from Arkansas, an
exemplar of the back-country, primitive music that had
given birth to jazz. In the later 1940s, when blues
had largely fallen from fashion, Broonzy picked up on
this image and began touring the United States and Europe
as an old-time Mississippi bluesman, the only person
still playing the true, country style.
Within a few years of Broonzy’s death in 1958,
young blues enthusiasts would travel to Mississippi
and “discover” a host of players with styles
far more earthy and old-fashioned than his. After that,
his reputation fell into a sort of limbo -- too “folk”
(and too familiar to a previous generation of white
intellectuals) to be considered with Robert Johnson
as a proto-rock ’n’ roller, and too slick
to be a genuine roots artist.
Both of these assessments are unfair, but especially
the former. Broonzy, more than Johnson, is a clear precursor
of the electric blues stars. His bands set the pattern
for the later Chicago groups; indeed, he introduced
Muddy Waters on the local scene, and Waters’ first
LP recording was a set of Broonzy songs. As for rock
’n’ roll, Broonzy made the case clearly:
“You hear Elvis Presley, you hearin’ Big
Boy Crudup. You hear Big Boy, you hearin’ Big
Bill. He was my man.” While Broonzy could be unreliable
on occasion, that lineage is directly traceable on record.
“The Bill Broonzy Story” was recorded
in 1957, just before Broonzy underwent a cancer operation
that left him unable to sing. He still sounds wonderful,
singing with warmth and power, and playing tasty, swinging
guitar lines. The material ranges from spirituals and
African-American folk songs to “Swanee River”
and “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come
Home.” Roughly half the songs are pop blues, the
music with which Broonzy became a star, though his introductions
frequently emphasize his “folk” purity.
He introduces one song by explaining that it is not
the sort of thing that Waters, Smokey Hogg, Lightnin’
Hopkins, or even the folk favorite Brownie McGhee would
sing. “You couldn’t pay one of them fellows
to play a song like that,” he says. “You
couldn’t sell it.”
While often acting the part of the country cousin,
Broonzy is meticulous about crediting his popular peers.
He traces songs back to both their authors and the stars
who made them famous. His reminiscences of these now-mythic
figures are one of the great pleasures of this set,
at least to hardcore blues lovers. At times, he also
gives subtle clues to his own commercial orientation,
as in his explanation of how one writes a blues. You
can take anything -- a knife, a box, an axe, or, of
course, a woman -- and write a blues about it, he says:
“It don’t take but five verses to make a
blues; think of five things you can do with something
. . . and you got a blues.” That number five is
not folk tradition; it is the number of verses that
would fit on a three-minute 78 single.
The “country” persona, while somewhat
disengenuous, was also deeply rooted in Broonzy’s
early life. He was born in the Delta in 1893, and grew
up as the blues were taking form. When he talks about
his grandfather, a banjo player who remembered slavery
(“They didn’t call what they was playing
blues . . . they called it reels”), about the
links between religious and secular singing, or about
long days working as a plowhand, he is speaking from
personal experience. (Even if he draws some odd conclusions,
as when he says that New Orleans musicians cannot sing
blues because they grew up working sugar cane rather
It is important to note, as well, that Broonzy’s
folksiness did not in any way include nostalgia for
the Southern rural world from which he had eagerly escaped.
His credits include some of the strongest anti-racist
songs in blues history, and he knew exactly why the
younger generation of black listeners were not interested
in his sound. “The younger people say you’re
crying when you’re singing like that,” he
says. “Who wants to cry? Back in those days people
didn’t know nothing else to do but cry, they couldn’t
say about things that hurt them. But now they talks
and they gets lawyers and things. They don’t cry
no more, so that’s why they don’t play ‘em
Of course, for those more interested in hearing music
than history, the real value of this set is in the 35
songs and instrumentals. Broonzy was well aware that
these might be his final sessions, and he performs like
a man creating a final testament. While the interviewer
at times tries to direct the recording along predetermined
lines, Broonzy tends to go his own way, and there is
no artist in blues who could have created a document
more varied and imaginative than this. His vocals are
relaxed and sure, a direct extension of his speaking
voice. His virtuoso guitar phrases answer and punctuate
the singing, drive the rhythm of the upbeat tunes, and
even underlie much of the conversation.
Today, with the resurgence of interest in acoustic
blues, it is time that Broonzy received his due. He
is not only one of the major artists in the field, he
is the most important bluesman to leave anything like
a full picture of his taste, repertoire and abilities.
His 1930s recordings, many of which are available on
CD, are well worth hearing, as is his later, more folk-oriented
work, and his written reminiscence, “Big Bill
Blues,” was recently reprinted. As a well-rounded
view of his life and music, though, these three CDs
are the perfect place to start.