Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Big Bill Broonzy: Trouble in Mind

This release on Smithsonian Folkways Records highlights the acoustic "country blues" of the great Big Bill Broonzy, from sessions in 1956 and 1957 as well as two performances from a concert at Northwestern University near Chicago.  Despite the musician's struggles with throat cancer, from which he died in 1958, his playing and singing are fantastic.

Moses Asch, the owner of Folkways Records, was determined to record Broonzy solo and to emphasize his singing and lyrics, which, in Asch's view, were often not as well-recorded in his earlier years.  A bonus is the opportunity to hear Broonzy introduce or add commentary to some of the pieces, including on "Joe Turner Blues No. 2 (Blues of 1890," "Black, Brown and White," and in his live performances of "This Train," and "In the Evening."

As remastered for compact disc, there is a clarity of sound that might be too clean for listeners who like the grittier recordings of the era as represented on the original vinyl releases.  This is certainly understandable, especially when it comes to classic blues material, but, on the other hand, the acoustic guitar and vocals do shine nicely on this release.

Among the many gems, in addition to those mentioned here, are the standard blues and folk tune "Frankie and Johnny," in which the jilted Frankie takes out her anger on her roaming lover Johnny; the hilarious "Mule-Ridin' Blues," an excellent example of the talking blues genre; the emotive "Poor Bill Blues," a personal adaptation of a tune called "Worried Life Blues"; the double-entendre loaded "Digging My Potatoes"; the plaintive "When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)," best known in a version by Tampa Red from 1940 and best known in a rendition by electrical guitarist Elmore James; the famed standard "C.C. Rider"; and the fantastic "Southbound Train."

In truth, though, all of the nearly two-dozen songs are great, showcasing the variety of Broonzy's repertoire and use of varying styles in the blues genre.  There is a great quote from Studs Terkel, who did interviews with the musician and was a major figure in oral histories of Americans for many years.  Turkel stated that "Big Bill Broonzy was not only the greatest country blues singer I ever heard, he was one of the wisest of men. He knew the human heart as well as anyone."

As to Broonzy, his introduction to the live performance of "This Train," which had the audience singing along in a true interaction that only great performers can bring about, is hilarious and telling.  In it, he said "Well, they say that everything I sing whether it's a spiritual or folk song  . . . it's still the blues . . . Well, I'm a blues singer, what else am I gonna do with it . . . Some people call these folk songs . . . I never heard horses sing none of 'em."

True enough, but most folk wouldn't be able to sing these songs with the flair, passion and exquisite blues phrasing and guitar accompaniment of the amazing Big Bill Broonzy.

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