Album Review

Big Bill Broonzy - Trouble In Mind

Big Bill Broonzy - Trouble In Mind

Critics have been rough on the folk-blues records of the '50s and '60s, albums that often repackaged country-turned-urban blues singers as facsimiles of some idealized rural past. The LPs that Big Bill Broonzy made for Folkways in the years leading up to his death in 1958 have been particularly susceptible to this charge. Some reviewers have complained that Broonzy's singing on these recordings smacks of self-consciousness, others that he pandered to white folk revivalists by recasting himself as a songster in the Lead Belly and Josh White mold. These claims aren't entirely unfounded. Broonzy streamlined his performances for white audiences: His guitar playing is less complex rhythmically, his singing less subtle on his Folkways albums than it is on his earlier recordings. There's no denying that the records he made for the black market -- the uptempo he sides cut with small bands in the '30s and '40s, and the ragtime-flavored 78s he made as a solo act prior to that -- constitute his best work. But recognizing as much is hardly grounds for dismissing his Folkways output. This collection, which contains studio and live tracks, as well as radio excerpts from "Studs Terkel's Almanac", is important for at least two reasons. First, it serves as a repository of American vernacular music sung not by some folkie who "discovered" ballads such as "Joe Turner" or spirituals such as "This Train (Bound For Glory)", but by the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who came up singing them and feeling them deep in his bones. Citified black audiences who were turning on to jump blues or to the heavily miked Delta sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf may not have wanted to be reminded of the hardscrabble times associated with Big Bill's "new" repertoire; others merely found it quaint. But when they were first released, Broonzy's Folkways records opened up vast new worlds to many white listeners. His frequent appearances in England galvanized the incipient British blues scene. When the throat cancer to which Broonzy finally succumbed prevented him from playing a series of late '50s UK dates, the ailing bluesman helped book his protege Muddy Waters as his replacement, a turn of events that inspired the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Animals to pick up harmonicas and guitars. (Working with Derek & the Dominos, Eric Clapton eventually recorded Broonzy's "Key To The Highway", a version of which is included here.) Another reason Broonzy's folk-blues recordings are of more than just historical interest is the extent to which some of them, songs written as early as the 1920s, anticipated the Freedom Movement. On "Black, Brown, And White Blues", he sings: "I helped win sweet victory/With my plough and hoe/Now I want you to tell me, brother/What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?" When Broonzy performed this song, as well as the wrenching "When Will I Get to Be Called a Man" (both of which appear here), he gave many white hootenanny fans their first glimpse of what it meant to be black and living in America. Only a churl would suggest the bluesman was selling out, much less looking backward by seizing a platform for social change.