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The Man Who Brought the Blues to Britain: Big Bill Broonzy

Big_Bill_BroonzyThere was a very interesting documentary on BBC4 last night on Big Bill Broonzy. I’ve mentioned his song ‘Black, Brown and White’ a few times in class, particularly given its critique of racial discrimination in America in the immediate post-war years. I am very happy to see that Broonzy is being given attention in popular media, not only because of his musicianship and creativity, but because he did play such an important role in bringing African American music to Britain and Europe in the 1950s. He is also a fascinating character because he flies in the face of the predominant stereotype of the blues musicians were Southern rural rebels that sold their souls to the devil. While Broonzy ticks some of these boxes, he did so knowing full well that the stereotype was what white audiences wanted, and he therefore cultivated his own image as the last of the Mississippi blues players, at a time when the urban sounds of Chicago were exciting younger black audiences more than the ‘downhome’ rural sounds. Given the documentary’s title, it would have been good to hear more about Broonzy’s friendships with prominent English blues figures such as Alexis Korner and Paul Oliver. His British audiences loved him so much that they tried to raise money for him when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1958 (this is not mentioned in the documentary). Nonetheless, it is an interesting story of how an ordinary African American born into a Southern sharecropping family at the turn of the 20th century became very popular with people such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.

Highly recommended.

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