Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

00 / 00

Big Bill Broonzy discusses the blues ; part 2

BROADCAST: Jul. 22, 1953 | DURATION: 00:09:08


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: "Willie Mae", "Crawdad song", "Going down this road feeling bad" and "John Henry".


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Big Bill Broonzy Because because they don't do that, see. It's the same as if there's something I want to tell a man that I didn't like, I'd tell him through a song. But I would never use his name, you know? It's the same thing if you loved a woman, you wouldn't, you wouldn't come out and say, the same as the song "Willie Mae." Now, to sing a song about Willie Mae, why, Willie Mae, you know, is

Studs Terkel She could be anybody.

Big Bill Broonzy That's it, see.

Studs Terkel You just take the name Willie Mae, but it

Big Bill Broonzy It means a woman that

Studs Terkel

Big Bill Broonzy

Because because they don't do that, see. It's the same as if there's something I want to tell a man that I didn't like, I'd tell him through a song. But I would never use his name, you know? It's the same thing if you loved a woman, you wouldn't, you wouldn't come out and say, the same as the song "Willie Mae." Now, to sing a song about Willie Mae, why, Willie Mae, you know, is -- She could be anybody. That's it, see. You just take the name Willie Mae, but it might It means a woman that I'm A It -[content

Studs Terkel Willie Mae, or whatever her name might be. Bill, what other part of life haven't we dealt with? How about children? Now, I don't know if there are blues songs about them but there are songs about children that you do know, I know, with that guitar in your travels you've come across children, you've heard them sing, I guess you've heard mothers sing to children, perhaps you yourself

Big Bill Broonzy Yes, some of those, a lot of those old, old songs that a lot of people get them tangled up with different -- Well, same as a lot of people have told me in my traveling around the world that, all Negroes that sing, see, sings jazz. But to us, to us, I mean to me and all the Negroes that I've talked with, the jazz musicians and the ones that sing popular and ballads and things, they think it's different. They think, well, according to some of the people in the world that I've met since I've been traveling in Europe, they've told me that me and Mahalia sings the same thing. It's all the same.

Studs Terkel Mahalia Jackson sings gospel music and you sing

Big Bill Broonzy I sing the blues. Well, they say it's all jazz.

Studs Terkel Well, in other words, this is a stereotype. You see, these people have one narrow idea. That's all they know. They just accept, they just don't know. And the idea of this show perhaps

Big Bill Broonzy I don't like, I don't think I sing the same style that Marian Anderson sing, I don't think I'm singing the

Studs Terkel Definitely not. She has one style, she has one contribution.

Big Bill Broonzy We're both Negroes, but I don't think we're doing the same thing.

Studs Terkel But you and Marian Anderson, Bill, contribute to America a great deal of richness, each in your,

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I know, I hope we, I hope to do some good for the, for the American Negro blues singers. That's what, that's -- Them the people I want to help because the people like Marian Anderson, they don't need no help.

Studs Terkel Well, you're doing more than

Big Bill Broonzy Billy Eckstine and fellows like them, them people, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, all those people, they don't need no help. It's the blues singers is the one that's getting kicked in the face all the time, you know, because the blues, they're trying to, look like they're trying to get the real blues out of, out of circulation. They're trying to get to, more bop into it.

Studs Terkel In other words, you feel that the blues, the authentic blues, is being pushed around a lot in various entertainment places. Yeah,

Big Bill Broonzy Yeah, you know, you take a fellow like like Muddy Water [sic], Smokey Hogg, Lightnin' Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker and a fella like Brownie McGhee

Studs Terkel These are all great blues singers he's naming.

Big Bill Broonzy I don't say that they are not no greater than the other fellows what I mean.

Studs Terkel You named them as examples.

Big Bill Broonzy In the fields. But I mean them fellows are real blues singers and they singing the real blues that was -- That I learned when I was when I was a kid. You know what

Studs Terkel You feel, in other words, that people are a little scared of the real thing, some-- In this world of ours today they get scared of something that's too real, and they shy away from it and they mess it up, is that what you mean?

Big Bill Broonzy They hire, they hired me to go all the way from here to Europe.

Studs Terkel You've been to Europe about four times now.

Big Bill Broonzy Yes, my, it's my fourth trip. And they hire me and pay me a big salary to go all the way to Europe to play. And they said they don't want nothing but the real blues, and when I get there and the agent talk to me and send me out on the stage, he wants me to play "Frank and Johnny" and all, "Old Man Rivers

Studs Terkel "Old Man River." Well, maybe this is part of the illness of our time, Bill. People are scared of the real thing.

Big Bill Broonzy They should, they should hire Billy Eckstine, somebody can sing that, I can't sing

Studs Terkel You're a little too real for them, Bill.

Big Bill Broonzy Well, that's it.

Studs Terkel So getting back to the

Big Bill Broonzy But they said they want the real thing until they hear it, and then they don't want it.

Studs Terkel Well, there's nothing more real than children, nothing more real than young people.

Big Bill Broonzy No, children makes, keeps the world going.

Studs Terkel That's it. Now, what about that children's song that you know that you've heard and that is sung as a lullaby?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, we didn't really call it a children's song, but I known old people down there at, in my hometown down around there, they -- The first guy that I heard singing this thing was a guy they called Fast Black. He used to play with my uncle and also with this guy C.C. Rider.

Studs Terkel C.C. Rider.

Big Bill Broonzy He played a guitar that he made out of a good box and he used to play that and he used to travel around, and he told me that he'd been up in Kentucky and Tennessee and he worked in the coal mines and up in there and he come back with this new new song and they called it "Crawdads."

Studs Terkel "Crawdad."

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I've heared after after he stayed around and sung it, everybody liked it, and after that then the older women then used to, the women that had kids and I've hear them sing it and sing it as a lullaby, you know? So after we got to playing it round, we'd start it off as a lullaby or something like that, and then we'd jazz it up, you know?

Studs Terkel How

Big Bill Broonzy To dance by.

Studs Terkel The craw-- the little

crawfish. [content

Studs Terkel Had to be pretty hard to be able to put a little baby to sleep with that one because it's so joyful, he'd want to live, he'd want to get up and sing and dance.

Big Bill Broonzy If you singing that loud, he sure wouldn't go to sleep.

Studs Terkel That's great. Tremendous. I'm trying to think of a way now to wind up this little meeting, this get-together we're having here, Bill, and when I think of Bill Broonzy, I think of another pretty big man named John Henry. John Henry, the steel driving man. Now, we call you the king of blues singers, John Henry was the king of the steel drivers. When did you, how did you first come across John Henry?

Big Bill Broonzy Well, John Henry, John Henry was, John Henry and Frank and Johnny and them things like that, my uncle, I've heared him play them for years

Studs Terkel It's the same uncle who taught you "Cryin' Joe."

Big Bill Broonzy When I was a kid, yeah. And those those songs like, they have, there's no end to songs like that, "Frank and Johnny" and "John Henry" and "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," that's a song my uncle used to say and used to sing when they was really in trouble and they had to go to work at a place and they didn't want to work there. And they had to go anyway, and so they'd be going down the road, and maybe 50 or 60 of them lined up to go to this place to work, and they'd start singing that song. I'll play you a verse so you

know [content

Studs Terkel I never heard it

Big Bill Broonzy sung Well, that's the way the Negroes used to sing it. My dad and my uncle, my dad would sing it, and my uncle used to play it on a banjo. I've heard him do that plenty of times until he joined church.

Studs Terkel And it was from him you learned "Cryin' Joe Turner" and "John Henry," too. When did you start singing "John Henry?"

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I tried it, I tried it 'way back in the 1930s. I went to New York and I run up on Brownie McGhee and Josh White and Lead Belly and Pete Seeger and also Burl Ives, all of them and I'd hear, I'd hear different way they played it and I tried it but I couldn't play, I couldn't pick it, I wasn't good enough to pick it on a guitar. So I happened to get in a place and they wanted to hear me play it. And they kept wanting me to sing it. Well, I knowed the words, I had been knowing it for years, but I couldn't play it. You know, what on on my guitar. So I just decided, I said, "Well, everybody everywhere I go, they want to hear it, so I'm just going to play it my way, if they like it it's all right and if they don't like it it's all right.

Studs Terkel How does your way

Big Bill Broonzy So I just figured out me a way and I just play it just like we play a fast-time blues, you know? You get tired of playing slow, and we play fast, you know? So I just decided I'd learn how to play, I just play it the way that I play it.

[content removed, see

Studs Terkel Bill Broonzy. You can sing "John Henry," all right. You can play

Big Bill Broonzy Well, I played it just like I play the blues, you

Studs Terkel "A man ain't nothing but a man." That's that lyric in there, Bill. I think that's about as good a way as any as we can wind up this little talk we had here. Bill Broonzy, Big Bill Broonzy, so far as I'm concerned just about the greatest blues singer in the world. Just had a little talk with Big Bill Broonzy. Thanks very much, Bill, and I think your songs and your singing and your work and you're the man who will be remembered for a long, long time to come and I think you have contributed a great deal and an overwhelming richness to