In July 1957, a day before he had an operation for throat and lung cancer, the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy finished recording his final album. “Man, this is a helluva night, Is there gonna be any whiskey?” he said.
The Last Sessions, made for Verve Records in Chicago, captured his hauntingly sad voice in versions of blues classics such as Key to the Highway and the gospel Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
One song Broonzy declined to sing was Black, Brown and White, his bold anti-racism song that Decca and RCA refused to issue in the Forties. “But as you’s black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back,” went the lyrics.
That song was chosen by Tom Jones when he appeared on Desert Island Discs. The Welshman is not the only singer to have been influenced by Broonzy. He was deeply influential for many British artists and, 55 years after his death, a BBC Four documentary pays tribute to the man who helped bring the blues to Britain and personified the black American experience of the 20th century.
The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards is one of those paying tribute: “I saw him when I was about eight and he encapsulated everything I wanted to be: to sing, to play the guitar and to be black.”
“Broonzy seemed to come from a mythical world,” adds Ray Davies of The Kinks.
In fact, Broonzy was born Lee Conley Bradley in Arkansas sometime around the end of the 19th century (his actual birth date is disputed), one of 17 children of sharecroppers. His musical career started by playing at local dances, using a fiddle made out of cigar boxes, but things were interrupted when he was drafted into the army and went off to fight in the First World War. He was sent to Brest in France and later recalled: “I didn’t know where I was going any more than a goat.”
Broonzy’s experiences changed him and when he returned to America, he was unwilling to accept a life of rural drudgery and racial subservience. He was humiliated when an employer told him to take off his army clothes and put on overalls because the man didn’t want to see “a n----r wearing Uncle Sam’s uniform”. This incident was the spark that made him turn his anger into harder-edged music, and he wrote When Will I Get to Be Called a Man?
Broonzy lived through terrible times, when black men were tarred, feathered and set alight. Grim observations from Broonzy’s diary (narrated by actor and musician Clarke Peters) are highlighted in the documentary: “You could kill a Negro and it meant no more to a white man than a mule.”
He decided that life would be better in Chicago, where he worked in a foundry by day and sang at house parties by night. He recorded hundreds of blues songs but gradually realised that his chances of well-paid work lay in entertaining white audiences who wanted so-called “authentic” folk songs. A triumphant concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1938 was an important moment when Broonzy reached a wide, mainstream audience.
Broonzy had many flaws and the documentary doesn’t shy away from this. Producer-director Jeremy Marre says: “What fascinated me, over and above his musical achievements, was Bill’s ability to survive, adapt and reinvent himself for different audiences and cultures. He was charming and resolute and had huge professional integrity. He helped many other musicians and developed a vast repertoire that included courageous autobiographical songs and the shocking album Blues in the Mississippi Night. Yet in his personal affairs he was a trickster, even a rogue. He blended truth and fiction seamlessly.”
Broonzy was a heavy drinker (running up whiskey bills of 200 dollars a night); he drove a Cadillac and was a womaniser. His first wife Gertrude was followed by two called Rose (Texas Rose, then Chicago Rose) and all were deceived. Part of the appeal of Europe was the chance to fool around. One liaison, with a woman from Amsterdam, resulted in a son called Michael van Isveldt.
The situation back in America was more complex for Broonzy. In Chicago, young black people wanted to see the electric blues of rising stars such as Muddy Waters, and so Broonzy turned even more to acoustic ballads (although Waters himself remained a fan, recording a tribute album of Broonzy's songs and being a pallbearer at his funeral). Folk Bill became his own invention, critics said, but he became an inspirational figure for the (white) folk music revival movement. Some lovely footage from a summer camp, filmed by folk singer Pete Seeger on a 16 mm camera, shows Broonzy singing softly and smiling sweetly during a version of Worried Man Blues, even though, by this stage, he was very ill.
During the benediction at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama, the civil rights leader Reverend Dr Joseph Lowery paraphrased Broonzy’s Black, Brown and White. The world had come a long way and Broonzy, with his moving music, had helped document and shape the black experience of the 20th century.
Big Bill Broonzy: The Man Who Brought The Blues To Britain airs Sunday 1st December on BBC Four at 9.00pm.