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All We Are Sure of is That Big Bill Broonzy Could Play

Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most important blues players of the twentieth century. The problem: Broonzy — at least according to the bio at the site Big Bill Broonzy — was an inveterate liar:

Despite years of research, the details of William Lee Conley Broonzy’s birth date remain problematic. He may have been born on 26 June 1893 – the date of birth he often gave – or according to Bill’s twin sister Laney, it may have been in 1898. Laney claimed to have documents to prove that. However, definitive research undertaken by Bob Reisman (see www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com search book “I Feel So Good”) has changed the picture.

Bill often regaled audiences with tales of his birth on 26 June 1893 and that of his twin sister Laney and of his father’s response to being told he had twins to care for. He claimed to have served in the US Army in France from 1918 – 1919 and to have been invited by a record company to travel to the Delta following a major flood in 1927: Turns out, that a good deal of this was fiction at worst and faction at best.

Robert Reisman’s impeccable research suggests a birth date for Bill of 26th June 1903 (and in Jefferson County, Arkansas, not Scott Mississippi as previously suggested). Laney was not a twin at all but four years older than Bill. (She was born in 1898).

Bill spoke and sang about experiences in the US army and of his return from France to Arkansas/Mississippi. It turns out though, that the reported army experience was Bill’s factional description of an amalgam of the stories told by black soldiers returning from overseas. A trip Bill claimed to have made to Mississippi in 1927 to the flooding was similarly untrue, but was a factional account into which Bill inserted himself. (Continue Reading…)

With a tribute site like that, a musician doesn’t need critics.

In Broonzy’s defense, all of those old blues folks probably made up a lot of their histories. AllMusic seems to have accepted Broonzy’s version of things, while Wikipedia notes the uncertainty. Bob Reisman, who is referred to above and wrote a book entitled “I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy,” discusses Broonzy in an hour-long PBS program.

The video above, which was shot by Pete, Toshi and Dan Seeger, has been sliced and diced in a couple of ways. The longest version at YouTube has three songs: “Worried Man Blues,” “Hey Hey” and “How You Want it Done.” My favorite, above, is “Hey Hey.” Below is “Trouble in Mind.”

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The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.