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Big Bill Broonzy discusses the blues ; part 1

BROADCAST: Jul. 22, 1953 | DURATION: 00:17:09


Big Bill Broonzy discusses the blues and growing up in Arkansas with parents who were former slaves. He talks about the family dynamic and sings: "Crying Joe Turner", "C.C. Rider", "Make my get away", and " You've got to stand your test in judgement" . Part 1


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Studs Terkel [guitar playing in background] Sitting across the mic here from me in a chair about the same size as mine while the gentleman differs in size, Big Bill Broonzy, all six foot two of him. Big Bill, probably the great blues singer of our time, the great blues artists, and we're going to try to find out what makes Big Bill tick. The guitar you hear in the background is the brother of Big Bill, that's his bosom brother, his guitar there. Bill, how would you describe the blues, what is a blues song?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, blues is really came from in the way people live and the way that some some of them the way they are treated, and to the places where they live and the work they do.

Studs Terkel In other words, the blues deals with the daily lives of people, the kind of work they do, the way they live from day to day, the blues is songs about the experience of people, but how many blues songs have you written, Bill?

Big Bill Broonzy Two hundred sixty.

Studs Terkel Two hundred sixty blues. How far back does that go?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, the first blues that I made put on record was 1925.

Studs Terkel Nineteen-- How do you go, how do you go about writing a blues? Where do the ideas come from?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, the main thing about writing the blues is to get any kind of thing that you can think of, well, we'll just say, a knife, a razor, a woman, or let's take a knife. How many things you think you could do with a knife? You could maybe trim your toenails with it, or you could cut a stick with it, then you could kill a man with it too, you know.

Studs Terkel And so this knife, this woman, this job you do, part of your life. How many

Big Bill Broonzy That's right.

Studs Terkel What that means to you in your life and so you work a song out dealing with a knife.

Big Bill Broonzy Well, it's, maybe you can think of more more than five things that you could do with a knife, you know, so you get five verses.

Studs Terkel What's the first blues song? I know blues is just an integral part of your life, Bill. What's the first blues song you remember?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, they didn't call it a blues, the first one that I heard, it was my uncle used to play it, they called it "Cryin' Joe Turner."

Studs Terkel This was down in Mississippi?

Big Bill Broonzy That was in Mississippi, yeah. And they called it a reel at that time, and my -- I remember him coming home once and he started playing that around the house and my mother kicked him out the house on account of him playing that because she didn't allow reels to be played in the home, 'cause my mother was church, you know, she was a church woman,

Studs Terkel Your mother was a very religious woman. And this song, this non-religious song, this reel, this move was considered sinful, is that the idea? And so he couldn't play this song in the house and he couldn't take his instrument in the house with him, either. This is your uncle, you say?

Big Bill Broonzy No, my mother.

Studs Terkel No, but your mother prevented your uncle, her brother, from singing it in the house. Your mother is still alive. How old is

Big Bill Broonzy My uncle is alive, too. My mother is 102 and my uncle is 105.

Studs Terkel And they were both slaves.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, they were slaves.

Studs Terkel This song, "Cryin' Joe Turner," this goes, you might say goes back to the slavery days, maybe.

Big Bill Broonzy Well, it must too, because my uncle played it and he was, he sung it, because they they had confidence in this man if they really needed something they had always figured that he would come around.

Studs Terkel This man you're talking about is Joe Turner. He's sort of a Santa Claus, a good Samaritan who comes through in a pinch. How did that go, as you remember it, Bill?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, this is the way my uncle taught it to me. But since then, I've heard it played so many different ways since then. But this is the way that he played it all the time.


Studs Terkel Joe Turner been here and gone.

Big Bill Broonzy That's the way my uncle used to play it on a five-string banjo.

Studs Terkel Well, Bill, that song then, we think of blues as song of sadness, song of misery, here's a song then that has hope to it, that's a blues, too. I mean, out of the disaster, the flood of 1892 and, say a drought, people hope for better things and Joe Turner is a symbol of that, is that the idea?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, yeah, yeah, because they lost everything they had, and in fact they been, is some of them didn't get a chance to to get anything out of their crops of that whole year, see?

Studs Terkel So they bank on this fellow they hope will show up, with this idea. Well, Bill, I know you're going to retune the guitar now so while you're retuning, see, the guitar of Bill was specially tuned for "Cryin' Joe Turner," he's going to untune it now for the next one. As he's doing that, want to talk about Mississippi blues singers. Bill, you're known as a Mississippi blues singer. How does that differ from a blues singer from the rest of the country, say?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, you take a fellow like Lonnie Johnson.

Studs Terkel He's from New Orleans.

Big Bill Broonzy Lonnie Johnson from New Orleans. Well, they live different in New Orleans than we do in Mississippi.

Studs Terkel You mean more of a city life, is that what you

Big Bill Broonzy And then the main thing is what they live, what they what they what they raise what they make a living with, in and off of, in Louisiana, you take the Louisiana people, they work for on the docks, they maybe some of them did a little sugar cane they raise around there, maybe a little rice or something like that, see. But you take the Mississippi people, they live off of their cotton and corn and potatoes and stuff like that they raise, you know? Then they don't just raise maybe a half acre, they raise hundreds and hundreds of acres of cotton and corn and potatoes and in fact, the business they, they really farms down there, you know, it's not like around New Orleans those people there, they live, their lives are different, I don't -- That's what I said and that's what makes the difference in the blues because

Studs Terkel Because the life is different. The blues deals with life. And so a Mississippi song is more of a shouting song, wouldn't you say? One time

Big Bill Broonzy Well, some time you shout the blues, if a -- That's just like a guy's been in bed for so long then he happened to get lucky and make some money, then he shout the blues. But if a guy, maybe he worked in some place and he didn't get any money at all, well he don't feel happy then.

Studs Terkel He doesn't feel like shouting. But you once said to me, another difference; music in the New Orleans singer and the Mississippi singer is that the New Orleans man is more of a technical musician and not as much feeling as the Mississippi.

Big Bill Broonzy I would call, I would call it that, because the regular jazz, regular jazz you will have at least I said, I said, you'll have to give that to New Orleans, because we do, we did play some jazz, we had fellows down there in Mississippi that did play jazz but it wasn't, it wasn't like the New Orleans jazz.

Studs Terkel I know you describe the guitar you play, the way you play it, as plucking blue notes, whereas Lonnie of New Orleans, Lonnie Johnson, would pluck chords, giving this more feeling, this

Big Bill Broonzy Well, you take a fella like Lonnie -- If he make a -- Well, I'll, I'll get this tuned.

Studs Terkel Yeah. For those who may have tuned in late, Bill is retuning the guitar while we're talking here. You know what I'm thinking of, Bill? You worked behind a plow in New Orleans.

Big Bill Broonzy No, in Mississippi.

Studs Terkel In Mississippi, rather, that's what I meant, you worked behind a plow in Mississippi, more plows used there than in the city of New Orleans. And since

Big Bill Broonzy I don't, I don't, I don't say they don't use plows there, but I think to move the plow then used there they push them, they don't they don't have nothing to pull them.

Studs Terkel You do the pushing and the pulling, both. And out of that, since blues deal with the daily experience of a man you wrote a song called, "The Plow-Hand Blues," and I think this would be kind of an example here of out of your life coming a music. Here's an example with the plow, the idea of a plow, what it does when you start writing a song about it.

Big Bill Broonzy A blue note is, see, if you make a chord like this [music], it should be 'C,' but Lonnie would play a chord like that [music], or maybe one like this, you know [music], or like this [music]. Or see, we we we blue singers, we wouldn't, we wouldn't play that [music].

Studs Terkel It's what comes to

Big Bill Broonzy It's the same thing [music].

Studs Terkel That's the way you play it.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah.

Studs Terkel In Mississippi. And how would "The Plow-Hand Blues" go?

Big Bill Broonzy [Music] Now that's played in the key of 'A.' But now, real musicians, he would make 'A' like this [music].

Studs Terkel In your case, there's more of your own feeling goes into it, so it's never the same way.

Big Bill Broonzy We've -- That's what we

call [content

Studs Terkel Well, Bill, I always wanted to ask you that question about the guitar. How did you get to learn to play the guitar? How long ago was that?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I first started out

Studs Terkel This is a fiddle you started playing when you were a boy.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, well, I was around 12, 14 years old.

Studs Terkel What -- Did you buy this fiddle?

Big Bill Broonzy No, I made it.

Studs Terkel You made it.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah. Me and a boy named Louie, Louie Carter.

Studs Terkel You made it out of what?

Big Bill Broonzy We made it out, well, we made it out of a cigar box.

Studs Terkel Cigar box?

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah.

Studs Terkel What were the strings?

Big Bill Broonzy And a broom broom broom handle and we had, we'd get a piece of strings and things from haywire and sometimes we use strings from from this guy C.C. Rider, he'd, a lot of times he'd break one of his real strings on his violin, fiddle

Studs Terkel You mentioned C.C. Rider. That's the name of a blues. There was a man by the name of C.C. Rider?

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, yeah that was that was that was the name they called him. I never did know his real name, but he was a guy that would, about the only only man down there that could ride in any train or boat or carriage, what's the number they had for transportation, he never had to pay any fare, he just get on it and ride.

Studs Terkel Because he was known as C.C. Rider, the man with the fiddle.

Big Bill Broonzy No, it was not, not just that, but he was known as a guy who was an entertainer.

Studs Terkel I mean, the great entertainer.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, and he played around for all the white people around down there down through there them days and then they let him ride on anything that was going from last number he went from one town to the other town was

Studs Terkel Well, this C.C. Rider blues, then that's his, that's originally

Big Bill Broonzy -- Yeah, well, they, they, yeah, that

Studs Terkel How did that go, as you recall,

Big Bill Broonzy I'd come in from

[music]. [content

Big Bill Broonzy You could sing that all night, you know, and I always admired the way he

Studs Terkel He said, "My home is on the water, I don't like land no more." In other words, he was sort of a traveling man.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, he

Studs Terkel He traveled light.

Big Bill Broonzy He always lived from one town to the other, see, and he always rode boats, you know, the --Any of the guys that owned a boat down there that was carrying cotton or cotton seeds or corn or potatoes or wasn't ever there was transferring from different places owned by boats, why C.C. Rider get on a boat and go anyplace

Studs Terkel So it was his violin and himself, they were the ticket of admission. Well, Bill I know you've hit just about every state in the union, you've traveled a lot and there's one song that you've written, I know. Is this one of the earliest ones you've written, that "Making My Getaway?"

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, that was back around the first time when I first started playing.

Studs Terkel This is kind of a getaway song. How did you get to write that? How did you get to write this "Make a" -- It's a travel song like C.C. Rider's

Big Bill Broonzy Well, this song wasn't just actually sung by one man, it was a -- This song was originated from a gang of, gang of workers, working on jobs while that there a lot of times you'd -- Well, when I first went off from home, I left home, or as they called it, running off. When I left from home, why we got in, I got into a place, I mean, of a boy that left home with me, his name was Louie. And me and him got into a place and all we could get was clothes and food. And we never did get no pay.

Studs Terkel So you were stuck there.

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah. And he was afraid to tell the man he was going to leave so we'd all sing the day that he was going to leave, that night we'd start singing this song that day.

Studs Terkel You mean, when one of you would head out, say head out north, you wouldn't want the fellow who employed you to know this, you want the other fellas

Big Bill Broonzy No, because you couldn't leave

Studs Terkel Yeah, and so

Big Bill Broonzy If you let the henchmen of his, what we'd call henchmans, we'd call them fatmouths

Studs Terkel Fellas that talk too much, you mean. They'd inform on you.

Big Bill Broonzy Well, they'd tell if they heard about it, they'd know that you was

Studs Terkel Then this is sort of a hidden language, sort of double-talk, you just want the fellas you know to leave, and you sing a straight

Big Bill Broonzy -- It wasn't what you'd call, you wouldn't be a prisoner.

Studs Terkel No.

Big Bill Broonzy But the thing about it, the man wouldn't pay you, and in fact if anything, he's just keep you down, you work and you get clothes and plenty of food. And we wanted money, you know?

Studs Terkel You're stuck and you wanted to head out.

Big Bill Broonzy So they wouldn't pay you, so you would just instead of just going up tell them, "Well, I'm going to leave tomorrow," see, well, we wouldn't do that, we'd just sing that day on the job and we'd leaving out that that next, that night.

Studs Terkel And that's how "Making My Getaway"

came [content

Studs Terkel Bill, that's pretty close to being an underground railway song in a way, that is, it says one thing and has a deeper meaning. Bill, your mother, your mother you say is a very devout Christian.

Big Bill Broonzy Well, she's always been, ever since I know her.

Studs Terkel And -- But she doesn't allow blues to be sung in the house. You can't bring your guitar in the house

Big Bill Broonzy No, not when I go there, I don't ever take it over there, I keeps it [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel I'm sure as a boy, then, you must have learned a lot of camp meeting songs, and

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I know a gang of them, [unintelligible] I

Studs Terkel Well, do you recall some from your boyhood that you may have learned from your mother or your

Big Bill Broonzy Yes, I know "[I Done Eyes?]" and "Stay in the Field" and "You Gotta Stand Your Test in Judgment."

Studs Terkel Well, that "You Gotta Stand Your Test in Judgment" that goes back to slavery days since you say your mother was

Big Bill Broonzy -- Yeah, well, they sung them songs before I was

Studs Terkel "You gotta stand your test of judgment, you gotta do it all by yourself."

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, that's the way they sung it in them days. Of course, I don't think there's even singing, now the Christian people that sings in church now, if they do, they got it a little different, dressed up as I call it, because they wouldn't sing it like my my fore-parents sung it back in them days because the younger people now, they're educated and they they've added music to those songs.

Studs Terkel And the feeling

Big Bill Broonzy Well, the feeling

Studs Terkel -- Still the same.

Big Bill Broonzy They don't care about their feeling now, they think about the class and the style and the different -- It's just same as me now. I'm 60 years old, but I wouldn't want to wear a suit my dad wore when he was 22.

Studs Terkel Well, how would you sing "Make My Test

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I have to sing it the way that I

Studs Terkel learned Well,

Big Bill Broonzy 60 years ago. [Music]. I can't dress it up because I don't know how, I'm not that

Studs Terkel Well, I have heard you sing


Studs Terkel I can't think of a better moral than you gotta stand up by yourself or you don't [bank on?] anybody else but yourself, your test and judgment. Bill, so far you've touched on the songs that deal with daily life, this dealt with belief, work song, "The Plow-Hand Blues," a travel song, that "C.C. Rider," "Making My Getaway." Now you mentioned earlier big things in the life of any man, women, love. What about blues and a love song? A man, woman, love, blues of a sort. You've written, of the 260 you've written, I'm sure a good number have dealt with the man, a woman and an idea.

Big Bill Broonzy Well, a lot of times, a lot of times, a guy, a guy writes writes a blues and he writes it about a woman; a lot of times he don't have to be in love with that particular name that he's he's he's singing about, the woman that's got that particular name, and then sometime they do. But most [in general?] of the time that blue singers sing a blues, really for a fact, he wouldn't mention, he wouldn't just come out and say the real woman that he was singing about. He'd sing about one woman and meant -- Meant for another woman, you know?