Make a difference: Support jazz online

Support All About Jazz Your friends at All About Jazz are looking for readers to help back our website upgrade project. Of critical importance, this project will result in a vastly improved design across all devices and will make future All About Jazz projects much easier to implement. Click here to learn more about this project including donation rewards.

194

Bob Riesman: I Feel So Good - The Life And Times Of Big Bill Broonzy

Jack Huntley By

Sign in to view read count
I Feel So Good: The Life And Times Of Big Bill Broonzy

Bob Riesman

Cloth; 336 pages

ISBN 97800226717456

University of Chicago Press

2011

Guitarist and singer Big Bill Broonzy is one of those musicians whose reach cannot be limited to his immediate musical era or genre. Like his peer Leadbelly, Broonzy effected attitudes toward civil rights through his songs. Like Robert Johnson, Broonzy's musical style deeply affected the course of history through his records poured over by future "British invasion" icons such as guitarists Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Broonzy also mentored the likes of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, thus ensuring the success of the next generation of blues musicians. Broonzy's legacy casts an incredibly long shadow.

What Bob Riesman's interesting and thorough biography makes clear is that not only was Broonzy a dedicated, hard-working musician, but that he cultivated his own myth with skill, understanding that storytelling was a critical aspect to his success. One piece of his life that Broonzy had no control over, however, but that served him well, was the simple timing of his career. His musical presence starts with America's early interest in "race records" and ends with the folk revival and the birth of rock 'n' roll (both events being affected by and paying homage to Broonzy).

Throughout his life, Broonzy changed birth dates, names and family history as it suited the story he was telling, but according to Riesman's research he was born Lee Conley Bradley on June 26, 1903, in Jefferson County, Arkansas. After early regional success, Broonzy relocated to Chicago where he played regularly throughout the 1920s, eventually taking Tampa Red's chair in the group Hokum Boys, where he penned his first in a long series of hits with "I Can't Be Satisfied."

Because he was a skilled songwriter, showman, storyteller and musician, Broonzy toured and recorded steadily throughout the Great Depression. His reputation was such that John Hammond picked him to fill in for the recently deceased Robert Johnson in the famous Carnegie Hall "From Spirituals to Swing" show which brought rural music to the attention of a wider (and whiter) audience, and provided a critical push to the folk revival that would blossom later, and thus provide Broonzy with his most critical musical and financial successes.

Riesman diligently chronicles all aspects of Broonzy's recordings, from backup session guitarist to band leader, from jazz/blues styles to folk blues, Broonzy was a master musician able to communicate no matter the musical setting he found himself in. He was also a hard practicing guitarist. Riesman relates the hours Broonzy spent honing his country blues alternating bass style, for example and the feel for time he achieved through the dedicated practicing.

The Big Bill Broonzy who emerges from Riesman's book is a complex man who used his story (sometimes intentionally fictionalized) to craft an image that would reflect the subjects that he sang about—Jim Crow-era inequality, the Southern African-American culture, the harsh life of rural sharecroppers and the violence that could quickly change lives. Broonzy is rightly remembered for these achievements, but Riesman provides a more layered biography, that puts these accomplishments within the context of their times and places the musician within the tradition from which he sprang. By doing so, Riesman has given readers a deeper understanding of Broonzy's astonishing achievements and how his legacy affected the social and musical landscape thereafter.

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Good Morning Blues Book Reviews Good Morning Blues
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: January 11, 2018
Read The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums Book Reviews The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
by Roger Crane
Published: December 19, 2017
Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read "The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966" Book Reviews The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: August 19, 2017
Read "Soul Jazz: Jazz In The Black Community, 1945-1975" Book Reviews Soul Jazz: Jazz In The Black Community, 1945-1975
by James Nadal
Published: July 7, 2017
Read "Softly, With Feeling" Book Reviews Softly, With Feeling
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: October 24, 2017