Big Bill Broonzy played extensively in Europe in the 1950s and was an important influence on the 1960s generation of British musicians, both as a guitarist and a singer.
Martin Chilton tells the story of his early life:
Broonzy was born Lee Conley Bradley in Arkansas sometime around the end of the 19th century (his actual birth date is disputed), one of 17 children of sharecroppers. His musical career started by playing at local dances, using a fiddle made out of cigar boxes, but things were interrupted when he was drafted into the army and went off to fight in the First World War. He was sent to Brest in France and later recalled: “I didn’t know where I was going any more than a goat.”
Broonzy’s experiences changed him and when he returned to America, he was unwilling to accept a life of rural drudgery and racial subservience. He was humiliated when an employer told him to take off his army clothes and put on overalls because the man didn’t want to see “a n----r wearing Uncle Sam’s uniform”. This incident was the spark that made him turn his anger into harder-edged music, and he wrote When Will I Get to Be Called a Man?
Broonzy lived through terrible times, when black men were tarred, feathered and set alight. Grim observations from Broonzy’s diary (narrated by actor and musician Clarke Peters) are highlighted in the documentary: “You could kill a Negro and it meant no more to a white man than a mule.”
He decided that life would be better in Chicago, where he worked in a foundry by day and sang at house parties by night. He recorded hundreds of blues songs but gradually realised that his chances of well-paid work lay in entertaining white audiences who wanted so-called “authentic” folk songs. A triumphant concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1938 was an important moment when Broonzy reached a wide, mainstream audience.