BIG BILL BROONZY: SINGS FOLK SONGS (1956)
1) Backwater Blues; 2) This Train; 3) I Don't Want No Woman; 4) Martha; 5) Tell Me Who; 6) Bill Bailey; 7) Big Bill Blues; 8) Goin' Down This Road; 9) Tell Me What Kind Of Man Jesus Is; 10) Alberta; 11) Glory Of Love; 12) Careless Love.
In 1951, the best thing possible happened to Big Bill: as part of a folk music revue, he got signed on a tour to Europe — and thus, almost unintentionally, became the Old World's chief gateway into the world of American blues and folk right until his death in 1958, upon which the crown passed to Muddy Waters. Not the best blues singer, far from the best blues player, not much of a unique innovator, yet with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to impress and inspire thousands of college kids across the Atlantic.
For a period of about five or six years, Big Bill toured back and forth quite extensively, leaving behind lots of recordings, mostly live, that would be useless to review separately, since he never troubled himself to vary his sets all that much. Sings Folk Songs, recorded for Moses Asch' Folkways (later Smithsonian) Records in 1956, is a very typical representative. (It is also the cleanest sounding Broonzy album you'll ever hear). The set mostly consists of various Appalachian-style stuff, mixed with gospel dance music, ballads, and just one or two straightahead blues numbers, and, as nice as it sounds, its chief value is historical — the best way to get your kicks out of it is imagine yourself as a young British student in the early Fifties, sitting in a small audience listening to this strange black dude singing music from the «deep heart» of a strange new world.
Every reviewer and biographer will always point out the obvious fact that Big Bill only played acoustic guitar on those tours, even though his studio recordings from the past decade did not shy away from amplified instrumentation. (All the more reason for European audiences to be stunned when Muddy abruptly took over with the Chicago style). Nor does he ever try to launch into boogie or «hokum blues»; it is well possible that he understood what the audience really wanted — an aura of «rustic holiness» around that music — and that's exactly what he gave, even if his impassioned renditions of folk-spirituals, to him, were just another style of popular entertainment that he fed the «intelligent» public. To each his own.
For some reason, my version of the album omits 'John Henry' (always the high point of the show, allowing him to really stretch out on one of the few «gimmicky» styles of acoustic playing that was available to him), but most regular versions have it, so if you feel like holding this historical document close to your heart, make sure that 'John Henry' is part of the proceedings. I'd also say that he plays one of the tightest and most expressive versions of 'Goin' Down This Road Feelin' Bad' I've ever heard — beats Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead all to hell. Overall, though, I do not feel empowered enough to rave on about how effectively this music transmits all the pain, suffering, hopes, and dreams accumulated in the souls of the Negro people over three hundred years of slavery, but I'll admit that good old Bill sure knew how to make a name — and some decent wages — for himself on the base of that legacy. And he certainly wasn't bad at what he was doing — just a bit overrated by way of lucky promotion breaks.
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