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Big Bill Broonzy Influenced Folk, Blues And Even The Beatles

Verve Records
The album cover for 'The Bill Broonzy Story,' released in 1960.

Big Bill Broonzy was an amazing guitarist and competent vocalist who went from Country Blues in the 1920s, through a period in the 1930s and 40s of urbanizing his sound to appeal to working class African-Americans, to a return to a more acoustic and folkish style in the 1950s.

In that final guise he became a hero of the 50 sand 60s American Folk music revival and an international star.

Broonzy was born somewhere between 1893 and 1903 and somewhere in Mississippi or Arkansas — better musicologists than I have failed to sort out the facts of that of either. It is known that he had 16 siblings and grew up in the Pine Bluff, Arkansas area. Also known is that he made a cigar box fiddle when he was 10 and began playing Folk songs and Spirituals at social and church events.


When Big Bill married at about age 17, he gave up music to become a sharecropper and preacher. He worked odd jobs after his crops were destroyed by a drought. Despite serving in World War I he was harassed by racists when he returned home and soon left the South to settle in Chicago. There he worked different jobs while pursuing music, now playing guitar, at "rent parties" and other events.

It was then that Big Bill turned to music full-time, cultivating a more uptown style and gaining some minor fame. At the same time he had a minor career in films and as a composer of film soundtracks.

Switching back to Folk Blues in the 1950s, Broonzy's evolving finger style guitar playing gained him fame. He recorded and performed nationally and internationally until his death in 1958. Guitarists in both America and Europe followed Big Bill from show to show to study his playing and people like Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Davy Graham, Burt Jansch, and even John Lennon list Broonzy as a major influence.


Big Bill Broonzy's compositions tended to reflect his transition from rural to urban and back to rural musical styles. Among his best known pieces are "Key to the Highway," "Martha Blues," "Police Station Blues" and his best known, "Saturday Night Rub."

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