Genre: Blues (Acoustic)
Tracks: (for 3-CD set) 67 (including “chat”)
Playing time: (for 3-CD set) 202 minutes
Availability (out of 3): 3-CD set: * / 2-CD set: ***
Related website(s): http://www.broonzy.com
My rating: 10/10
I like… The strong voice, the driving but melodic guitar, the strong blues lyrics, the “chat” between songs, the sound quality
I’m less keen on… At times I skip some of the “chat” tracks – but only at times!
n.b. this review is of the earlier 3-CD set that I own, but much of it will apply to the current 2-CD edition
I first came across Big Bill Broonzy’s name in a book about playing guitar. I was just discovering blues/ragtime acoustic guitar and Big Bill sounded right up my street. I bought an album, than another. This is my favourite, though, and I’ll explain why.
Big Bill’s strong voice and powerful guitar style make him a one of American blues greats. In the 1920s he sang and played mainly among black rural communities. In the 1930s he reached a wider, more urban audience, and for a time he played electric guitar but, to me, his sound on acoustic guitar was awesome and far superior.
In part his big sound came from
his way of knocking his guitar considerably out of tune. I’ll try to explain it as simply as I can. Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you wish.
Suppose that on a properly tuned guitar you play a “G” chord. There are three strings that give a G note (let’s call them “low”, “middle” and “high”). Each is a “G” note but each has a different pitch. Maybe you have tried singing to a song and subconsciously you’ve dropped or raised the pitch of your singing to avoid notes that are too high or low for your vocal range (by an “octave”). Because the guitar is well tuned the three “G” notes ring out in perfect unison and blend together. It’s hard to make out the three notes separately, but it’s certainly a richer sound than playing just a single G note on one string.
On an out of tune guitar, the three G notes ring out simultaneously but they don’t blend together. Perhaps the middle one is a “perfect” G, the “low” G is a bit lower than it should be. Let’s call it G “minus”. Let’s say the “high” G note is a bit higher pitched than it should be. Let’s call that note “G plus”. Now, when the G chord is strummed it sounds bigger. The three “G” notes each sound out distinctly rather than blending together. The sound is a little raw because it isn’t quite as smooth as it should be (perfect for blues!) But it sounds more or less okay because the three affected notes are fairly close in sound.
The other factor to Bill’s guitar sound came from the way he played his bass notes. Many fingerstyle blues guitar players had an “alternating” bass technique. The bass they played (over which they strummed chords or played a tune on the higher pitched strings alternated between two low strings. Try to imagine a low-pitched emergency siren, with the notes the other way round: “naw-nee, naw-nee, naw-nee…”
Big Bill tended to play a repeated (“monotonic”) bass note, not the same note throughout the whole song, but the same bass note was played repeatedly in succession: “naw-naw, naw-naw, naw-naw…” It was less melodic but it added a drive, and established a heavier rhythmic sound.
2 CDs or 3?
The 3-disc edition that I have has become harder to source having been replaced by a 2-disc one. I’m sure that in its own way it is still a fine album and a worthy addition to an acoustic guitar or blues collection. But it’s dumbed-down, and I think it’s a pity – because of the circumstances surrounding the recording of the album…
July 1957. Big Bill has been invited to a recording studio in Chicago. Bill Randle wants to lay down on tape some of his music and also some of his reminiscences. The selected recordings on a 5-album vinyl set were unique – and historic.
The day after the last session Bill underwent surgery for lung cancer. You would never imagine, listening to these tracks, that he was so ill. His voice is loud, and strong, with little harshness, and he can still sustain a note impressively. Little more than a year later, though, he faded and died. It’s little wonder that the album notes claim this as his “musical last will and testament”.
What’s been dumbed down is partly the number of songs, but in the main it’s Bill’s spoken introductions to his songs, the insights he gives into the lives of black Americans, and into his music. Admittedly at times on the 3-CD set this chat can be a little intrusive, especially on repeated listenings. But to me it’s a large part of the appeal and significance of the original 3-CD album, and in any case the spoken pieces are edited as separate tracks and can be skipped if necessary.
The 3-CD set comes with a 22-page booklet with complete track listing. It seeks to explain the development of blues music as well as introducing Big Bill Broonzy and the recording of the album. I’m not especially taken with the surreal artwork, but then again I bought the album for the music it contains!
I can only mention some of what’s on offer on this unusual album. As blues goes I think this is very accessible; it isn’t harsh or strident.
“Big Bill Broonzy: The man who brought blues to Britain”
“Key To The Highway” makes a fine start to the album (whichever edition) and, to me, shows just what made Big Bill so great. He hits out a strong, steady bass over which he plays some great licks on the higher strings, and his voice is assured and strong. As blues go, this is tuneful, and even catchy. “I’m gonna leave, leave this town running, because walking is much too slow” Bill declares.
“Joe Turner” is about a generous white benefactor who secretly left food, livestock and firewood for black Americans who lost much of their livestock and crops in a terrible flood of “18 and 92”.
It’s partly sung and partly spoken, and I think it’s arranged with imagination and flair.
Bill “bends” (slurs) notes on his guitar like there’s no tomorrow, and in fact seems to be tweaking the tuning pegs. At times he sings fairly softly, at others his voice almost roars, and he plays some fabulous riffs and licks, also obliging with a “walking” bass pattern as he tells us that when the people found the food left for them they were happy and “did a little boogie woogie…”
Whether or not the tale is entirely true, it makes a great song.
Bill then proceeds to play a fine instrumental version.
Bill describes “Stump Blues” as an old “holler”, a worksong in which various members of a labour gang would sing a verse each. His voice often wavers from one note to another, a bit like an instrumental “trill”, rather than sustaining one note. He sings it relatively softly for a holler, and once again, to me, the song is greater than just the sum of its various parts – powerful singing, a thumping bass and some great riffs and licks on the higher strings.
“I hear my hamstring popping, babe, I hear my collar cryin’… how can I stay happy when my baby’s down the line?”
In his introduction to “Backwater Blues”, Bill claims that a bunch of blues singers were taken to the scene of the infamous Mississippi flood in 1927, and that a prize was offered to the one who came up with the best one. The winner was apparently the legendary Bessie Smith, and this is Bill’s take on her song.
This deserves a careful listen; as well as Bill’s powerful voice and licks there are many variations that, to me, really enhance the song.
A quick mention, too…
It’s difficult to say much more without repeating what I’ve already said, though this isn’t intended to imply that the album is “samey”. The tunes are very different and so are some of the arrangements. Other highlights to me are “Slow blues”, a fabulous acoustic blues guitar instrumental, and the awesome “Glory Of Love”. The latter was a pop song of the time, but Bill’s rendition is really vibrant and if it doesn’t set your feet taping, I don’t know what will. This song – or rather, Bill’s version of it – inspired half a generation of British budding acoustic guitarists who made a career out of singing and playing, like John Renbourn, Wizz Jones and Martin Carthy.
Between tracks Bill “noodles” on his guitar and talks. Some of this was perhaps an attempt to say what he felt Bill Randle wanted him to say. At other times he undoubtedly embellished or possibly invented anecdotes, but it makes for some fascinating insights into the life of black Americans at the time, as well as into blues music and culture; some of these insights are unsettling, of course.
This is where I feel the 2-CD set is bound to be the poorer option, though still worth buying. The basic cake is there, but a lot of the icing has been removed, and, whilst the cake is still undoubtedly a very fine one, a part of its appeal is missing!
In all I think that either the 2- or 3-CD set is a very accessible starting place for Big Bill’s music and for “vintage” acoustic blues in general, as it is tuneful and catchy, but still with a reality and raw edge. The sound quality makes this more accessible than some of his earlier recordings, I feel he sounds best solo with an acoustic guitar, and to cap it all it’s brimming with a wealth of great music and some fascinating conversation from the great man! There are no songs I dislike, and a good number that I really love.
My rating reflects (a) that I love most of the tracks (some appeal to me less than others do, but this is purely a matter of personal preference, not an indication of any weak tracks), (b) the several tracks that have me reaching for the replay button and, (c) the comprehensive notes and photos included.
Overall rating: 10/10
- Section “Who?”: – from http://www.broonzy.com
- “BigBill Broonzy: The man who brought blues to Britain” – http:// http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/10484429/Big-Bill-Broonzy-The-Man-who-Brought-the-Blues-to-Britain-BBC-Four-review.htm