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Monday, March 21, 2011

Big Bill Broonzy: Vol. 3: 1940-1951


The last of the three big bulging boxsets is unquestionably the best in overall sound quality, for purely chronological reasons, but also questionably the best overall, or, at least, a great emotional improvement over the steady, unnerving sounds of Vol. 2. Two reasons are at play here.

First, some time around 1941, as if somehow fueled by the dark wartime premonitions, Big Bill became a classic hit songwriter. He certainly never overcame the formula, but somehow he mana­ged to give it a few unique twists that immortalized some of its representatives. That single year yielded such legendary stuff as 'All By Myself', an exceptionally lively, self-confident piece of boogie (with, finally, a well-expressed acoustic solo from the man himself) later appropriated by Fats Domino; 'I Feel So Good', an even more optimistic statement of utter satisfaction, whose macho potential would eventually be fully realized by Muddy Waters; and, of course, 'Key To The Highway', Bill's existentialist masterpiece No. 1, today far more tightly associated with De­rek & The Claptonos — but defenders of the faith would almost certainly claim that Bill is way more suited to feeling the lonesome-wanderer message of the song than some clean white middle class boy from Surrey.

These classics still have to be plucked out from a bed of same-sounding, not particularly invol­ving musical rocks. But then along comes war, and from 1942 to 1945 Big Bill, just like everybo­dy else, had serious trouble recording anything, what with the shellac deficit and all. Then, in the immediate post-war years, people needed to be happy, and much of his late 1940s material con­sists of rough, tough, foot-stomping boogie, occasionally spilling into «jump blues» as such ('Big Bill's Boogie', etc.) — unfortunately, this kind of music was much better done by burly shouters (Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris etc.) or much more seriously instrumentally endowed artists (Amos Milburn, Louis Jordan etc.).

However, it all ends January 4, 1949, on the date of Bill's recording session, credited to «Big Bill Broonzy & His Fat Four». That day, he was still doing the same small-combo boogie that made his fortunes so well-established, but his image so little-distinguishable (although a little bit of change was in the air, with his guitar parts clearly much more prominent than the backing band). Then, exactly one month later, the combo is dropped, and for the rest of his studio recording time in the States, Bill makes a decisive move back into the realm of acoustic-based music — with a heavy injection of traditional folk music into his blues structures, ranging from bluegrass motives to, you know, the Pete Seeger kind of stuff.

That stretch has sometimes been decried as risky (in fact, the liner notes themselves suggest that the move was «foolhardy»), but I cannot think of any other word than «refreshing» after nearly two decades of samey stuff that only yielded one truly impressive pre-war year of successful and influential songwriting. Not only does the man's moving away from boogie give him a chance to come up with some original, quirky chord changes ('Hey, Hey' so impressed Clapton that he would start off his Unplugged concert with the song fourty-five years later — played in the exact same manner as Bill does it, no better, no worse), he even allows himself to revisit that style of rapid-fire flat-picking that had once made 'How You Want It Done' so unforgettable, this time, on the old folk standard 'John Henry'.

In all, Vol. 3 runs an impressive gamut — all the way from Bill's songwriting maturation of 1941 to the transformation into the elder statesman of the grassroots commune by 1951, with the slow wisened-up sound of 'Trouble In Mind' wrapping things up. It could, and perhaps should, be said that Broonzy's place in the blues is somewhat overrated simply because he'd managed to swamp his much more talented competition with the sheer size of his output; altogether, these three sets amount to over three hundred sides, out of which I'd be hard-pressed to choose more than a dozen real favourites. (Then there's another, more serious, reason, which will be discussed in the next review). But you could also say the same about B. B. King — and, unlike the latter, Big Bill ne­ver recorded anything cringeworthy; never even «sold out» the way that, for instance, Lonnie Johnson did when he switched from technically amazing blues and jazz guitar pieces to smooth, lazy balladeering. There is never a point at which these unending samey-sounding blues and boo­gie pieces become «insufferable», and for a bundle of three hundred cuts, that's saying something.

Check "Vol. 3: 1940-1951" (CD) on Amazon

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