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?
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 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.
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 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 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?
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 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
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 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].
Big Bill Broonzy Yeah.
Big Bill Broonzy Yeah.
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
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.
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
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 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 No.
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 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 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.
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 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?