Blues lyrics haven’t really jumped out at me before, though I’ve loved the raw instrumentals and expressive, soulful tunes. Perhaps this has changed now… We recently watched a documentary on Big Bill Broonzy, not a blues musician that I knew much about, having been brought up on Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher and Stevie Ray Vaughan… or so I thought… In fact, I had heard the music of Big Bill Broonzy too. My dad played “Key to the Highway” many times on his guitar and my sister could hit the song’s low notes.
On twists and turns
Mystery surrounds Big Bill Broonzy. Yet about his character, we know that he had an ability to adapt and reinvent. Perhaps he even invented parts of his life story, as his birthplace and age have been contested. Though we do know that he was born around the end of the 19th century. Bob Riesman, in his book I Feel So Good: The Life And Times Of Big Bill Broonzy, does apparently disentangle much truth from fiction. The book deals with the story of Bill’s return from service in the First World War when he was ordered to remove his uniform. This event was a catalyst in his rejection of oppression, which added more fire to his music.
After the war, he fled an Arkansas where black people were severely oppressed and menaced (threats were not hollow – they were still tarred and feathered at that time). Bill found himself freer in Chicago. Here his adaptability was evident in the way he changed genre for different audiences. To mainly white audiences in concert halls he played folk music and in the house parties of the African-American community he played acoustic blues.
Back to the lyrics
In his lyrics, Bill Broonzy’s genuine voice shows through. Songs such as “White, Black and Brown Blues” are a direct commentary on racial oppression, with lines such as “If you was white, you’s alright. If you was brown, stick around. But as you’s black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”, I find the impact of these words even greater as they’re set against a gentle country rhythm. His lines might not be the most subtle, but they have direct kind of poetry and no one can say that they are not meaningful. “Key to the Highway” needs another listen…