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Monday, March 14, 2011

Big Bill Broonzy: Vol. 2: 1937-1940

BIG BILL BROONZY: VOL. 2: 1937-1940 (2005)

There is a damn good reason why JSP hesitated to go on slapping the name All The Classic Sides on Big Bill's second chronological boxset, covering the immediately pre-war years, going with the rather dry academic subtitle Annotated Discography instead — because none of these sides are, in any way, truly classic. Of the three huge sets, the middle one is easily the worst, and it looks like it ain't just my opinion: out of Vol. 2's grand total of 101 tracks, only one ('Just A Dream') made it onto the 26-track career retrospective These Blues Are Doggin' Me. One!

Why? Simple. By 1937, Bill had firmly sunk into a winning formula: playing smooth, steady, a little bit «mannered» mid-tempo blues and some modestly polite boogie-woogie, accompanied with small combos in which he was merely one of the guys. The formula worked, and the records sold, as steadily as they could during all the hard times. People liked the sound, and at one point, legendary promoter John Hammond even got the man to play Carnegie Hall as part of his From Spirituals To Swing shows that introduced America's white elites to black devil music.

But success and recognition somehow came at the expense of sacrificing identity. Listen hard and you will understand that Big Bill is still as accomplished a player as he used to be on these ses­sions — but listen really hard, or else the guitar will be completely lost behind the other instru­ments. He almost never solos, frequently sticks to the simplest boogie patterns, and even on those few tracks where his guitar is amplified, it is exceedingly hard to get impressed.

Some time during these years, Broonzy started trying to compensate by writing more original ma­terial; but «original material» at the time basically meant writing new lyrics to pre-existing melo­dies, and in 1940, the man hadn't yet found a proper way to insert little melodic twists that would prompt later generations to re-record and reinterpret his songs. On the contrary, the highlights of this volume are generally songs previously made into hits by other people — such as 'Louise Lou­ise Blues', a 1936 success for Johnny Temple (later expropriated by John Lee Hooker). But some of the lyrics are interesting, like the imaginary alpha-dog contest between Big Bill and his competitor Blind Boy Fuller on 'Jivin' Mr. Fuller Blues'.

Anyway, each one of these 101 tracks is pleasantly listenable, but overall, these are the sagging mid-period years in between Big Bill Broonzy the Dashing, Innovative Guitar Player and Big Bill Broonzy the Grand Maître of the Blues, preparing the grounds for Chicago's electric blues revolu­tion and at the same time immortalizing acoustic blues for European audiences. Refined lovers of the pre-war small blues combo sound will need this (especially since Bill's piano and trumpet-playing pals almost always have their own cool grooves going on), but I agree to stand by those compilers who normally skip this period in their retrospectives.

Check "Vol. 2: 1937-1940" on Amazon

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