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Monday, March 7, 2011

Big Bill Broonzy: All The Classic Sides 1928-1937


Writing on Big Bill from a record-based standpoint is pretty hard: out of all the pre-war / post-war country bluesmen, he was one of the most prolific, and, predictably, this translates into tons and tons and tons of nearly identical performances, differentiated only through their lyrical con­tent (and even then, that lyrical content rarely advances beyond a reshuffling of standard blues clichés, a process that could as well have been machine-generated).

Thus, attempting to review all of Big Bill's output through, say, the Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order series would be quite detrimental to one's health. We are therefore go­ing to speed up that process by relying, instead, on the JSP Records series, which have conveni­en­tly packaged everything that the man recorded in between 1928 and 1951 into three cozy box­sets, neatly equipped with minimal, but informative detail on the dates, locations, and participants of Broonzy's sessions.

Immediate warning: unless you are a true old-time blues aficionado, you really do not need any of these boxsets. The first one, in particular, includes a grand total of 129 tracks (and I am not even going to bother reproducing them all here) that, in between themselves, probably contain not more than 20 different melodies (and I am afraid I am being rather generous). Worse, JSP is one of those «honest» completist-targeted labels that only performs the most minimal remastering job on the tracks; and since during his earliest years Big Bill mostly recorded for Paramount, a label notorious for its piss-poor recording equipment (in a similar way and with far more criminal con­se­quences, they butchered most of Blind Lemon Jefferson's recordings), only about a third of these recordings is technically «enjoyable» — the rest crackles way too much even for my non-audiophile ears. For any purposes other than history immersion, you will do better with a compi­lation that concentrates on the highlights and cleans them up, e. g. Living Era's These Blues Are Doggin' Me (my first experience with Big Bill) or Yazoo's The Young Big Bill Broonzy.

What are these highlights, though? Tough to say. When William Lee Conley Broonzy first got around to recording, the two big markets for the blues — piano-based urban stuff and guitar-ba­sed country/Delta stuff — had already been well established, and it took him quite a while to make any impact on either; but when he finally did, he made an impact on both. In a cer­tain way, he synthesized them: even on this first boxset, there are as many connections to Leroy Carr in his performances as there are to Memphis Minnie.

Already his first recordings for Paramount in the late 1920s show an accomplished guitarist with an individual style. But Big Bill's force was not in the jaw-dropping technicality of the playing (typical of Lonnie Johnson and others), nor in the unpredictability of the chords he'd be producing (typical of Blind Lemon): from a layman's point of view, I would describe it as a meticulous ap­proach to the construction of his melodies. If his rags are derivative of Blind Blake's, they are «cleaner» and almost mathematically smoother — 'Guitar Rag' and 'Saturday Night Rub' are clas­sic tracks that drive the form to its utter perfection, and everything that comes afterwards is just a show-off (the way Steve Howe does it with 'The Clap'). And replicating his country-blues shuf­fles must be one hell of a satisfactory exercise for all scale-practicing guitarists out there — the sonic symmetry of tracks like 'I Can't Be Satisfied' is orgasmic.

There is also the matter of speed and precision: be sure that you get to hear the 1932 Vocalion release of 'How You Want It Done' and not the later re-recordings that simplify the guitar lines. On this particular performance, Big Bill simply machine-guns the song, an approach that I have not heard from any white blues-rocker with the possible exception of AC/DC's rhythm track to 'Baby Please Don't Go', and even there they never tried to work around that particular groove, based around a super-cool flat-picking technique. (Maybe to «refined» white bluesmen like Eric the technique seemed primitive, but one thing's for sure — it kicks far more ass than a whole ton of much more exquisite playing styles).

Most of Big Bill's best stuff from his first decade of recording is found on the first two out of five CDs — generally, Chicago-based recordings with a friend or two sitting in on second guitar and/or bass. As time went by, he became more comfortable with small combos that included a piano player or a little bit of brass backing, and, perversely, the more his recordings sold, the less genuinely interesting they became — much of this stuff is pure lounge entertainment, a bit of rag­time, a bit of swing, all delivered in Big Bill's nice, but utterly non-special, voice and with his guitar technique often sacrificed, melted away in the overall band sound. Depression-era audien­ces liked that — we don't have to, ever so spoiled by the strange idea that one has always got to emphasize one's strengths rather than humbly shoving them behind one's back. Fortunately, as later recordings would show, the mid-Thirties might have kept down Big Bill's real talents, but they certainly didn't extinguish them.


  1. "How you want it done" is brilliant showmanship, no doubt about it. The only white rocker, I can think of, that could play that mandolin technique and have a chance at this masterpiece is Dick Dale.

  2. Dave and Phil Alvin are about to release an album of Big Bill Broonzy covers.