I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy

I Feel So Good

The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy

Bob Riesman

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Foreword by Peter Guralnick

Sometimes it seems as if Big Bill Broonzy must have supplied the ur-text for each new generation that has come to the blues for the last sixty years.

There are, of course, many good reasons for this. The clarity of that soaring voice. The solid foundation of more than 300 original compositions. The unfeigned warmth and easy accessibility of both the work and the man. These were the very qualities that put Big Bill Broonzy on top of the “race” charts in the 1930s and ’40s, and they served him equally well with the white audiences who first discovered him from the early 1950s on, both here and abroad.

He wrote classic numbers like “Key to the Highway” (probably most familiar to contemporary listeners in Eric Clapton’s gently swinging version). He established his ironic vision of a better world in the constantly updated “Just a Dream” (“I dreamed I was in the White House/Sitting in the President’s chair/I dreamed he was shaking my hand/Said, ‘Bill, I’m so glad you’re here”). He even voiced genuine (and enduring) social protest with “Black, Brown, and White Blues,” no less pertinent when it was alluded to by Reverend Joseph Lowery at President Obama’s inauguration.

But what he possessed above all, what sustained him in a far longer and more diverse career than most popular singers are ever able to enjoy, was the ability to adapt to changing times, changing tastes, and changing circumstances. His wit and urbanity certainly served him well in this regard. But so did his forthrightness. In fact, the 1947 round-table discussion in which he participated with Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, with Alan Lomax serving as moderator, was sufficiently forthright to keep it from being issued in this country for many years. And when it finally did come out in truncated form in 1959, as Blues in the Mississippi Night, the identities of the speakers were masked by pseudonyms.

Perhaps his greatest feat of adaptation, however, came with his embrace of a new, white audience, which first took wing with the concerts that Win Stracke and Studs Terkel put on in Chicago as part of the nascent Chicago Folk Music movement, then with the European tours that started in 1951 (he was in effect America’s first ambassador of the blues), and finally with those memorably heavy (both the cardboard covers and the vinyl pressings) Folkways recordings by which a national folk audience came to know him. In those recordings, both in his own presentations or prodded by Studs Terkel’s interview questions, he revealed himself as a keen observer and sly raconteur, discoursing on everything from the origins of the blues to the identity of the “real” See See Rider. At the center of it all were his Scott, Mississippi, roots and the extended family and community from which he came, most vividly represented by his centenarian Uncle Jerry, an old-time banjo and string-band player, who had inducted his nephew at an early age into the world of spirituals and reels.

It was an accessible, immaculately presented image and history, both intimate and far-reaching—convincing not just for its vivid detail but in its quietly insistent emotional tone. This was the world of the blues as many of us first came to know it. And it would have been hard to imagine a more trustworthy or reliable guide. Big Bill, Muddy Waters said, was the one established blues singer to take him under his wing when Muddy first arrived in Chicago in the early 1940s. And he offered the same unequivocal welcome, the same generosity of spirit to all of us who came to the blues from a much more distant place. He even went so far as to write an autobiography, Big Bill Blues, full of arresting anecdotes and affectionate reminiscences, which was first published in 1955, three years before he died. He was, in short, the most patient and understanding of guides, presenting his story in a variety of forms and settings, employing metaphor and humor to illustrate his points, but always drawing upon a solid bedrock of personal experience.

Except none of it turned out to be literally true.

By that I don’t mean by that that he was any less generous a guide. I don’t mean to suggest that the world of Big Bill Broonzy was any less true. But the facts of his life as he presented them, the creation of Big Bill Broonzy himself—as this book, warmly, affectionately, but conclusively proves—represented no less a creative act than any of the hundreds of songs that he wrote or interpreted. The name, the dates, the birthplace, the detailed personal history, even Uncle Jerry—all were not so much fabrications as composite creations, all might better be seen not as the story of “Big Bill Broonzy” alone but as the story of the blues as he conceived it, in a way the story of the race.

I’m not going to spoil all the manifold surprises that this wonderful book holds in store. Suffice it to say that Bob Riesman has dug hard and deep into a world and a community to which few outsiders have been granted entrance. What is perhaps most remarkable about I Feel So Good is that for all of its revelations, for all of its insistence on unearthing the plain, unvarnished truth, you come away … feeling so good.

This is, quite simply, because of the warmth and affection that Riesman shows for his subject—and because of the clean, classic lines with which he has constructed his story. Thoughtful, admiring, clear-eyed, lucid, and well-organized, I Feel So Good gives us wonderful cameos—of record man Lester Melrose, early blues singers Georgia Tom and Papa Charlie Jackson, folklorist Alan Lomax, and Old Town School of Music co-founder Win Stracke—laid out on a sometimes skeletal frame. In a manner of which I am certain Big Bill would approve, Bob Riesman presents the story as a kind of journey, sinking his teeth into details when they present themselves but capable of teasing out the story in brief strokes when they don’t. The musical and social context, the songs themselves are considered with sensitivity and sophistication. But the book never falters under the weight of its impressive research, as a new picture gradually emerges. This sharply etched portrait gives us a Big Bill Broonzy not so much larger than life as full of life, no less imposing, no less self-delighted, no less reliable than his own self-portrait, but freed for the first time from the encumbrance of myth and presented in all of his glorious, serendipitous, self-aware, and self-created multiplicity of masks and motivations.

Check out the “Envoi” (no, wait till you get to the end of the book, I don’t want to spoil that surprise either)—I think it should be enough to say that this is the kind of book so engaging it simply leaves you wanting more.

Book details:

Bob Riesman
I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy
©2011, 328 pages, 31 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9780226717456 Buy print book at 20% discount.
E-book edition is forthcoming on our website and from other e-book sources.

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy.

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