Glossary entry for
Broonzy, Big Bill

Big Bill Broonzy was born into a Mississippi sharecropping family. Young Broonzy had learned the rudiments of the fiddle before his family moved to Arkansas and by age fourteen, he was working for tips at country dances and picnics. Bill served in the Army during World War I. After his discharge, he returned to Arkansas and farming only to decide that he wanted to make his living as a singer and guitar player. Sometime in the early 1920s he moved to Chicago where, under the guidance of Papa Charlie Jackson, he learned how to play blues guitar.

Big Bill recorded as a solo performer and played on hundreds of other sessions during the course of his long recording career. Broonzy's brand of blues stretched from ragtime-influenced and hokum blues to solo acoustic country blues, from city blues backed with jazz musicians to traditional folk blues and spirituals. Broonzy influenced many young bluesmen; often he took artists of lesser stature under his wing and helped them secure recording sessions and performance dates.

Although Big Bill's earliest recordings consisted of entertaining hokum and ragtime blues, he eventually grew into a respected country blues artist, often performing with other top blues artists in Chicago at that time, namely, Memphis Minnie,Tampa Red, Jazz Gillum, Lonnie Johnson, and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson.

Broonzy was a major artist on the Chicago blues scene during the 1930s. Throughout his lifetime he held numerous menial jobs, including that of a janitor and a maintenance man. His stature as a blues artist matured far beyond the boundaries of the Chicago and Southern blues communities after his performances at John Hammond's famous Spirituals and Swing concert series in 1938 and 1939 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This newfound fame helped Broonzy maintain his role as a father of Chicago blues until World War II, when the arrival of electric guitar and new artists like Muddy Waters, pushed his brand of blues into the background. Rather than retire, Broonzy opted for a new role-that of a folk-bluesman. In 1951 he toured Europe, performing standard blues, traditional folk tunes, and spirituals to appreciative audiences. He returned to Europe the following year with pianist Blind John Davis. Not only did Broonzy help introduce blues to Europe, especially in France and the British Isles, but he also opened the door for other American blues artists to tour there as well.

In 1955 Broonzy, with help from writer Yannick Bruynoghe, told the story of his life in the book Big Bill's Blues. Originally published in London, the book was one of the earliest autobiographies by a bluesman. Two years later, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Broonzy continued to perform, although often with great pain, until he died of the disease in 1958. He was inducted into Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980.

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