Biography of the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, who would inspire a generation of musicians yet was not the man they believed him to be. Broonzy's own words are read by Clarke Peters.
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# When did you leave Heaven
# How did they let you go... #
Broonzy was the first guy I saw visually.
I saw him on BBC TV.
I was probably about seven or eight years old,
where he was singing When Did You Leave Heaven.
# But you are so divine
# When did you leave Heaven... #
It encapsulated everything I wanted to be, you know.
The first time I ever wanted to play a guitar and sing
and actually I wanted to be black at the time.
# It was a dream
# Lord, what a dream I had on my mind... #
Here was something that we could really identify with.
It was stark and simple. Very, very exciting, really.
We swallowed this kind of lone folk singer persona, you know.
We didn't find out till afterwards that he had a whole secret backlog.
I'd hear Big Bill Broonzy and my head would always turn
and I'd say, "Shut up, I'm listening to this now!"
Because he was my number one.
What the film clip did to me, it created a mythical world.
I was 12, 13 years old when I saw it.
And my ideal world is a club that's like that club.
Whenever I want to write something that has a certain mood,
I think of that image of that club.
I call it the Riff Club.
So the Big Riff starts there.
# I'm feelin' so good
# Just feelin' so good, baby... #
These first moving images of Big Bill Broonzy were filmed in 1951,
the year he brought the blues to Britain.
Though he would inspire a generation of musicians,
his earlier life was cloaked in mystery.
His fans believed he was an old-style Mississippi bluesman.
The image that was presented of him was like Sharecropper Bill.
And one character after a gig went up to him
and said, how could he possibly have come on tour,
shouldn't he be working on the plantation?
And apparently Bill said he was lucky because he had a very
sympathetic massa who had let him go away and play his guitar.
I mean, what complete bullshit. But there you go.
What I learned as a would-be biographer
when I started looking for the fact-based documentation
for Big Bill Broonzy's life was, in the words of Winnie the Pooh,
the more I looked for them, the more they weren't there.
Bill was always telling the truth, his truth.
# Cos I'm trouble in mind
# Babe, I'm so blue... #
Most British fans had never seen a live blues musician
from America's deep south.
They were entranced by Bill's charisma
and by the evocative lyrics of his songs.
# You know the sun
# Sun gonna shine
# In my back door someday. #
I think there was a pretty precise mind at work behind those words
and it was almost like Hank Williams or some of those people that
wrote songs that seemed really simple,
and underneath it there's a real truth, you know,
and the words are kind of hitting on something that's a lot, lot deeper.
# Goin' down this road now feeling bad, baby
# Goin' down this road feeling so low and bad
# I ain't goin' to be treated this way. #
Broonzy's music was a kind of road map of his life.
He was able to navigate his way across Britain
and then Europe by creating a network of useful contacts
who believed he was exactly what he appeared to be.
Bill was always very knowing. He was savvy.
He could come in and read a situation
and identify what course of action
he needed to take with the best chance of success for himself.
Among Bill's many admirers was a Belgian couple,
Margo and Yannick Bruynoghe.
They helped write his autobiography,
without realising how much of it was fiction,
though Big Bill Blues did hold many clues to where he came from.
Yannick asked Bill to put down
whatever he wanted to put down
about blues, about him,
about the blues, about the other blues singers.
He said, "You take a pen and you write down everything.
"The thing is to write down what he's told."
If it's true or not, that wasn't our problem.
'If anybody asks me if I'm from Mississippi, I'll say yes,
'but I don't like to talk about it.
'Because I was born poor, had to work and do what the white man told me.
'So I've been playin' for those white people for a long time.'
The place and date of Broonzy's birth have been
the subject of conjecture.
The family register says his name was Lee Conley Bradley, born 1903.
But Broonzy himself gave a different date.
'I was born in the year 1893.
'My mother was a Christian and my dad was a Christian.
'I joined the church and was baptised.
'But Christian is one thing and money is another.
'We had to keep our instruments hid under the house
'because our mother wanted us to be preachers.
'I made a fiddle out of a cigar box,
'and we'd play for white people's picnics.
'One steps, two steps and square dances.
'Negroes on one side, and whites on the other.
'A white man told me, "You're too good for playin' to Negroes."
'So that's the way I started playing for whites.
'White folks want all the good things for themselves.'
Broonzy as a boy learned to navigate what was
a minefield of racism as a performer.
Anything that's good for white audiences could not be used
by black audiences as well, because it would symbolise
a level of social equality, all right, in entertainment.
My aunt Mary used to sing,
and she couldn't carry a note,
but she would be up singing and dancing.
It was just, we had a really happy family.
Broonzy's stories from that time
were often metaphors about his everyday life in Arkansas.
'I knew a man near my home, and they called him Mr White.
'All his fences were white, the trees, he painted them white.
'All the sheep, the goats, even down to the chickens, was white.
'Everything on his place was white.
'He didn't want nothin' black on his plantation.'
Any time there was a chicken,
a goat, a sheep, a mule or anything like that
that was brown or black, he said,
"I don't want no nigger chickens on my farm."
And he'd make somebody take them off
and give them to one of the black families.
There were many stories.
I mean, fantastic, fantastical stories actually.
Made-up stuff about birds and crows and bloody necks...
People getting up from the dead.
I didn't know whether it was true or not.
I mean, I was a child, I believed it. That was Uncle Bill.
# Lord, I did all I could
# Ooh, Lord, trying to please my soul and so... #
I think to understand Big Bill you have to understand that he
was a young man with ambition.
# I ain't gonna raise no more cotton
# I declare, I ain't gonna try to raise no corn... #
He wanted to make something of his life.
He wanted to make a statement.
He wanted to earn a living in a way
that wasn't dead-ended and gruelling.
To express his feelings, Bill often adapted other people's songs,
painting himself as a lone figure in a hostile world.
'Backwater Blues is about one of the truest things that ever happened.
'That was the way the flood water hit us.
'I was down there at the time and it was a terrible flood.
'The water was over the entire neighbourhood.'
# Lord, that was really enough trouble
# To make a poor man wonder where in the world to go
# They rowed a little boat
# Just about five miles across the farm... #
The floods of 1917 provoked the building of levee camps
all around the Mississippi river.
Broonzy worked there to supplement his modest wages as a fiddler.
'I worked in levee camps, and every place I'd hear guys singin'.
'And when you hear a fellow sing the blues,
'it's really a heart thing, from the heart.
'That's the only way to say those things.
'You know, the way we lived in those tents, the food
'we had to eat was really just scraps from what other people had refused.
'You could kill anyone down there so long as he's coloured.
'They said, "If you kill one nigger, we'll hire another."
'You know what I mean?
'In those days, a Negro didn't mean no more to a white man than a mule.'
The worst things they said within our hearing range,
because they didn't want the kids to know about stuff like that,
but they tarred and feathered a black man down on Ninth Street
in Little Rock and hung him up and set him on fire.
I don't know what he supposedly had done,
but it was bad, it was really bad.
I'm thinking that Uncle Bill probably thought that it can't
be any worse if I take off and try to do something better.
'If I hadn't been a damned good fighter and a big son of a gun,
'I would have been in the graveyard a long time ago.'
It seems as though my grandmother mentioned one time
that he had to leave Arkansas.
He had to leave.
Because we always wanted to know why he didn't stay here with us
and she said, "Well, he had to leave, he couldn't stay here with us."
You know, she never went into any details or anything like that.
And I don't really know exactly what he did, but during that time
a black man could just show up in the wrong place, you know,
or say the wrong thing to somebody, so I just don't know for sure.
# I believe, I believe
# Uncle Sam can use me... #
Broonzy told how he was drafted for the First World War.
Perhaps he wanted to disguise or lose his identity there.
# Now, I do believe, baby
# Lord, I be anything you want me to be... #
'In 1917, I was called into the army.
'Camp Robinson in Little Rock shipped us to Brest in France.
'I didn't know where I was goin' any more than a goat.
'I was in one of those labour battalions, building barracks,
'putting in a good road.
'We did all the dirty work.
'The officer would say,
"You have to do that because you don't know nothin' else."
'I couldn't read or write,
'and I had to keep worryin' the fellers to help me write home.
'So every day I tried to read or write somethin'.
'Looking at labels in the stockroom, at different cans and boxes,
'I learned to spell out C-A-N-D-Y and T-O-M-A-T-O,
'and on like that, till I could write home to my mother.
'I didn't know the war was over till I was on the way back home.
'I came out of the army in 1919.
'And I couldn't stand bein' bossed around by nobody.
'Bein' in the army had opened my eyes.'
Bill would recount the humiliations of his homecoming in the song,
When Will I Get To Be Called A Man.
# That night we had a ball
# Next day I met the old boss
# He said, "Boy, get you some overalls"
# I wonder when
# I wonder when
# I wonder when will I get to be called a man
# Do I have to wait till I get 93? #
'He said, "You can take off them clothes and get some overalls.
'"There ain't no nigger goin' to walk around here with Uncle Sam's uniform on."'
When Will I Be Called A Man is a song where Broonzy pulls
together a narrative that speaks in a universal way for his people,
about the need for change to happen
and to raise the question, when will it happen?
Just before going to war, Bill had found himself a wife.
But his marriage now hit the rocks.
'I got married. Her name was Gertrude.
'She was 17 and I was 21.
'We had chicken and cake and ice cream at our wedding.
'But there were differences between me and Gertrude now.
'She didn't sympathise with me no more.
'Before I went in the army, whatever my wife said, went.
'I shouldn't do this and I shouldn't do that.
'Now, I wouldn't stand that with her, or the white man.
'I couldn't stand eatin' out of the back trough all the time.
'I didn't want nobody tellin' me what to do.
'"What the heck," I said.
'"Down here a man ain't nothin', no how."'
Broonzy's choice of where to go was influenced by the Chicago Defender.
This black-owned newspaper denounced the racism of the South
with an honesty no other paper dared.
It also listed the many attractions of the northern city of Chicago.
The paper's greatest crusade was the encouragement of an exodus
of black farm workers from the South to the cities of the North.
The Defender really helped to influence
quite a number of people to make that move.
One of them was Big Bill.
He decided to take a chance to go to the city.
As a young man, he knew that it was a risk, and it was a risk,
because you're leaving a way of life
that people had lived for generations.
# I got my ticket
# I'm holdin' right here in my hand... #
'So I left home in January 1920.
'I caught the freight and rode on North, just singin' the blues.
# I'm holdin' right here in my hand
# Lord, I've got a real good woman
# But the poor gal just don't understand... #
'I arrived in Chicago on February 2nd, 1920.
'I got a job and started playin' music all around,
'and makin' money out of that.'
The South Side that Big Bill stepped into would have been amazing to him.
This was heaven for someone like Broonzy and other migrants.
It represented progress. It represented modernity.
And for a young man with ambition like Broonzy, it was...
It represented opportunity.
Culture, freedom, jobs.
You lived in your own neighbourhood,
you didn't run into, directly into, Jim Crow,
you know, like you did in the South.
So you had a sense of freedom.
You was walking down the street, you didn't come into contact with
somebody who's going to tell you to get off the sidewalk.
The Chicago Bill encountered wasn't as racially divided as the South,
but it was equally class ridden.
There were the expensive clubs with top-line jazz performers
like Duke Ellington.
These were often run by gangsters who were
making their fortune from prohibition.
Further down the South Side, poorer black immigrants were
dancing at house parties, which helped them pay their rent.
'We used to have a bunch of fun round there.
'Musicians didn't have to pay for nothin'
'and we'd get a chance to meet some nice lookin' women.'
And on a weekend, on the South Side,
there'd be any number of house rent parties.
And for someone who was new to the city like Big Bill,
it gave him a chance to develop a reputation, to learn the city,
to eat, to drink, and to join a fraternity of young musicians
who were similarly attempting to make their name.
'I bought me a guitar for a dollar and a half.
'I'd met some big shot and I was ready to make a record.
'I wrote a guitar solo called House Rent Stomp
'about those rent parties.
'No words, just pickin' the old guitar strings.
'Makin' the first two, E and B, cry, makin' the G and D talk,
'and the A and E moan.
Lee Conley Bradley soon went about inventing a new persona
for the challenges ahead.
He changed his name to Big Bill Broonzy.
But, at first, that didn't help him fill his pockets.
'I got nothin' for my first songs. No royalties.
'Until I started in this music business, I didn't know
'about people who'd rob their own brother for a lousy dollar.
I'd always been around people that if they made a little somethin',
'they'd give you a little somethin' too.
'So I went down to Maxwell Street,
'and that's how I know they sold good,
'because I bought 50 of them myself!'
He composed many songs and never made a dime out of them
because they were totally cheated,
and the music business did not care about the real blues.
They could have cared less, or anything.
They just wanted to make a buck. But he rose above that.
He was just a prince of a guy.
He said, I'm not going to spend my time fighting with people.
'I didn't know nothin' about trying to demand my money.
'What I'd do was get me some job in a foundry or other work.
'Steam all around me, hot iron fallin'.
'I worked every day and played music at night because I didn't
'make enough money just playin' music to take care of my family.
'It didn't bother me to work.
'That way I could always send my mother 2 a week.'
But finding a day job in Chicago was getting harder as the economy went
into free-fall and the prospects for the music business looked bleak.
When the Great Depression hit, it affected every
industry in America and the recording industry was no exception.
There was a period where virtually no blues recordings were
made in the early 1930s.
The Depression, of course, was a time of tremendous economic crisis.
But for Big Bill as a recording artist,
it was a time of tremendous opportunity.
Because of his creativity, he was able to craft
a broad range of songs that spoke to the issues of the time,
in a way that really allowed him
to penetrate the African American record-buying market.
# I'm feelin' sick and bad
# My head is hurting too
# Go get the doctor so he can tell me just what to do
# Because I keep on aching... #
Who would want to buy a song about starvation?
Who would want to buy a song about pneumonia?
Right? Unless they were faced with those problems.
So in that way you might say he was a blues preacher.
# I've got holes in my pockets
# There be patches on my pants
# Yeah, I got holes in my pockets, mama
# With big patches on my pants... #
They talk about the scourge of alcoholism, the bottle,
in a song like Good Liquor Going To Carry Me Down.
No matter what the incentives are, that are presented
to the protagonist to put down that bottle,
he's unwilling to do it.
So this is a way of speaking out about the realities of life.
# When I lay down in the evening
# I hold my woman tight
# When I wake up in the morning keep that bottle out of sight
# I just keep on drinking
# Yeah, man, keep on drinking
# I just keep on drinking
# Till good liquor carry me down
# I went to the doctor with my head in my hands
# The doctor said, "Big Bill,
# "I'm going to have to give you monkey gland"
# You just keep on drinking
# Yeah, man, you keep on drinking
# You just keep on drinking
# Till that liquor carry you down. #
Broonzy was no lightweight.
There was great substance to his music
and he could make it playful.
It didn't have to be a man's soul, each and every time you heard it.
It could be something light that you could dance to, could take
a breath to, you could have a drink to, you could laugh with.
Or you could cry with.
Bill was not a salesman of the blues.
But I don't think he had to be.
Broonzy didn't need to sell the blues
because, unlike many of his colleagues,
he boasted a vast repertoire - ragtime, spirituals, boogie.
He could adapt to fit every taste and occasion.
They were making these songs from personal experiences, to the people.
And the black people were sitting down and drinkin'
and they related to it.
"Man, that's it! You're right on time!" You know. Stuff like that.
Bill Broonzy was a frontrunner. Sort of like a leader.
He was inspirational and he would give advice.
He was a tall figure and he was the king of the South Side of Chicago.
And he was highly respected by all the musicians, and the people.
Broonzy had become a star attraction who could fill the South Side
clubs with a hard-edged music that embodied
the migrant experience of the 1930s.
But Bill was due for a radical make over
when he was suddenly invited to New York, to appear at the city's
temple of high culture, Carnegie Hall.
From Spirituals to Swing introduced the cream of black performers
to a white concert audience for the first time.
Broonzy knew, from his early years playing segregated picnics
in the South, how to impress a gathering of whites.
He chose to perform a song he'd written especially for this occasion.
Broonzy performed the song Just A Dream.
Now he politicises the song by adding a line that refers to
dreaming that he was at the White House.
He dreams that he was at the White House, that he
was welcomed by the President, that he was welcomed
by the highest political authority of the land.
So Broonzy injects this line in the version of Just A Dream
that he sings to white audiences.
The desire for political equality.
But he ends the song with a refrain that it was just a dream.
# I dreamed I was in the White House
# Sittin' in the President's chair
# I dreamed he shook my hand
# And he said, "Bill, I'm so glad you're here"
# But that was just a dream
# Lord, what a dream I had on my mind
# And when I woke up, baby
# Not a chair there could I find... #
This was the turning point in Big Bill Broonzy's career.
He could see that, armed with only his guitar, his voice,
his songwriting and his charisma, he could capture an audience
and he could capture an audience in the most prestigious
concert venue in America.
So when he would play for white audiences
he would play folk songs, you know.
But when he played for black people, he'd sing blues,
the blues records that he'd made for last 14 years.
He didn't play folk songs for black people.
That wouldn't have worked, and he knew that.
# See that woman Her hands up over her head?
# Did you hear me, what I said?
# She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know
# She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know... #
Bill was starting to play two styles of blues for two different worlds.
And he enjoyed the success.
Big Bill was a heavy drinker and he was a womanizer, yeah.
They said Big Bill's whisky bill used to be at Ruby Gatewood's lounge,
used to be more than he made.
Said he'd have a 200 whisky bill over the weekend.
Cos he'd party and buy his friends drinks.
It was while partying down South that Bill met his second wife,
known as Texas Rose.
She often stayed home in Chicago while Bill,
enjoying the trappings of his success,
would proudly drive his Cadillac down to North Little Rock.
# Goin' back
# I'm goin' back to Arkansas... #
He had bought his mother a house there,
to get her off the old plantation.
But he didn't travel alone.
# I know I will be happy
# Me and my wife and mother-in-law
# That's why I'm goin' back
# I'm goin' back to Arkansas... #
When he came home, he always had some woman with him.
I mean, he would hang out with them
but he'd always get the ladies' attention.
I don't know if it was his guitar or his good looks.
Yeah, he was a ladies' man.
From what I understand, I can remember my mother saying,
"Uncle Bill brings a different lady home."
And I couldn't tell you what none of them looked like,
can't remember that.
Cos our focus was on him.
He always looked good.
And that could have just been me, you know.
But to me, he did.
Everybody would come over.
And my grandmother would cook and my auntie would cook
and we'd just have a good time.
He'd be playing and we'd be dancing and just having a good time.
It was just, I guess, like one big party.
All of the older ones, my mother,
they would all, you know, get dressed up
and make up and stuff.
He'd take a lot of pictures. The family would come over.
Everybody would try to see Uncle Bill.
And they'd want to be in a picture with him.
But things were so hard back then.
Where my grandma Mitty Bradley lived,
up behind her house,
they burnt this big huge cross behind her house.
And see, just over the hill from her house
were the white neighbourhoods, the...
what they call the working class, I guess.
But they would burn those crosses on that hill and you could...
the whole neighbourhood could see 'em because of
the way that, you know, it was built.
# This little song that I'm singin' about
# People, you know it's true... #
Stung by the racial provocation he'd experienced all his life,
Broonzy wrote a song that would have a major impact
on his career.
Black, Brown and White Blues is as much of an anthem
as Bill ever wrote.
What he does in a set of verses
is present a vignette of racial prejudice.
And that gives his voice plenty of time to, kind of, tell the story.
# Well, listen to me, brothers
# You know it's true
# If you're black and gotta work for a living
# This is what they will say to you
# If you're white
# You're right
# If you're brown
# Stick around
# But if you're black
# Oh, brother
# You got to git back
# Git back, git back. #
'I tried RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca,
'but none of them would record that song.
"We like the music," they said, "but not the words."
# They called everybody's number
# But they never did call mine... #
'I said, "What's wrong with it?
"Y'all know it's true."
'Me, I tried everything not to be made to "git back."
'I changed everything.
'I even learned to play my guitar differently
'and sing different songs.'
'So I found out that fine clothes, a big cigar, a change of talking
'don't hide what's on your face.'
'If you're black in the USA, you got to "git back."
# They was payin' me 50 cent They said
# If you was white
# You'd be all right
# If you was brown... #
While Bill was struggling
with the commercial pressures of the record business,
Black, Brown and White Blues was adopted as something of an anthem
by his new white fans in local radio.
Well, there's a lot of people in the world have never had to "git back."
But I wrote it because I had to "git back."
These radio shows were ushering in the folk revival movement
where Bill would be cast as the down-home country blues man.
# Git back, git back, git back. #
He joined folk musicians like Pete Seeger
who were discovering what they called the soul of the nation.
I met Bill in Chicago.
I remember singing with him...
..at the University of Chicago.
And I think he was amused
to see a white man try and learn to sing the blues.
Although we only saw each other occasionally,
I tried to learn from him as much as I could.
Pete Seeger later accompanied Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
in one of Broonzy's biggest hits
about the freedom of the road.
# I got the key
-# To the highway
# Billed out, I'm bound to go
# I'm gonna leave here running because
# Walking is most too slow
# Now give me one, one more kiss, darling
# Just before I go
# If I leave this time
# I may not come back no more... #
Bill wanted people to understand that the blues was not simply music.
That it came from a life experience.
That it was shaped by the culture of the South.
That it was shaped by
his relationships with his family and friends
and that it was shaped through a fraternity of musicians.
And he wanted people to understand that the blue note,
the sound of the blues,
that sound that can make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,
that it came from a space of black tragedy and resilience.
Broonzy spoke frankly about that in the 1947 recording
Blues In The Mississippi Night.
This testimony was the brainchild of Alan Lomax.
Like Pete Seeger, he was a member of the crusading People's Songs.
Lomax wanted to paint Broonzy and his companions
as Delta bluesmen from, in his words,
"the dangerous jungles of the South".
Bill Broonzy started this conversation.
You know, he said,
"Well, we're going to get to the heart of the matter, right now.
"We're going to define what really the blues is."
'I always believed that it was really a heart thing,
'from his heart, you know?
'And expressin' his feelin' about how he felt...
'to the people.
'Blues is kind of a revenge, you know?
'You want to say something, signifying-like.
'That's the blues.'
They described a set of circumstances that in many cases
are chilling to listen to.
Involving lynchings, murder,
'They say, "If you kill a nigger, I'll hire another nigger.
-"If you kill a mule, I'll buy another."
-'One of those things.'
They were talking very, very frankly. It was amazing.
Because something would remind them
and they would just start singing a fragment of a song like
# I'm going to Memphis when I make parole... #
# I'm goin' to Memphis when I make parole
# Stand on the levee
# And watch the big boat blow. #
-'You know what I mean?'
-'Yeah, they used to sing...'
Among the people who were captivated by
the Blues In The Mississippi Night record
was Johnny Cash.
He referred to it as one of his favourite records
and he recorded a song called Going To Memphis.
# ...past Tennessee
# With Mississippi all over my face
# I'm goin' to Memphis, yeah
# Well, the freezin' ground at night
# Is my own foldin' bed
# Pork salad is my bread and meat
# And it will be till I'm dead
# I'm goin' to Memphis
# Like a bitter weed, I'm a bad seed
# But when that levee's through
# And I am too
# Let the honky-tonk roll on
# Come mornin' I'll be gone
# I'm goin' to Memphis
# Yeah, I'm goin' to Memphis... #
Major TV networks would carry Bill's Broonzy's life story
to audiences who'd never even heard the bluesman's name.
Bill did have an impact on popular music
in a variety of areas.
Elvis Presley noted Bill as an influence,
Elvis said, "I loved the low-down Mississippi blues singers,
"especially Big Bill Broonzy and Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup."
But he also noted that he'd get scolded at home
for listening to them.
By the 1950s, Broonzy's music had begun to influence the mainstream.
At the same time, however,
it was being increasingly ignored by the black community.
An influx of younger musicians had arrived
to enjoy the post-war economic boom.
# Ever since you've come to Chicago
# I declare you've changed your name
# Little girl, you changed your way of walking
# Ain't nothin' about you the same... #
What he began to detect
was that the style he was playing in was not what was happening.
At that time, there were several styles emerging
that African American audiences were excited about.
There were jump blues, there were crooners,
and Bill didn't really fit neatly into those categories.
He was older.
He did not speak to the young generation.
He spoke to the first generation of migrants.
And that generation, in the eyes of the industry,
But his day as a recording star, as a blues star,
for the black market, was in decline.
And so for him, he was clear-sighted
in identifying that the style he was playing in
was losing momentum.
And he set about identifying a course for himself
which would allow him to continue to perform
for white audiences in the United States and in Europe.
# Yeah, my luck'll be changed
# Ooh, Lord, and I'll be on my way. #
Bill had made half a dozen trips to Europe, during the 1950s.
Knowing how the image of the country bluesman
had appealed to white Americans,
he decided to try his act in Europe.
Broonzy was seeking new and fertile pastures.
In his private life, too.
He divorced Texas Rose and married a third wife,
But, to Bill, out of sight meant out of mind.
It was, for him, impossible in Chicago
to have a white woman as a companion or his wife.
This is why he wanted to marry every girl he met.
And, of course,
he had made a big lie, as usual.
He said always,
"You know, I'm a divorced man
"and I'll show you my divorce paper."
The document was genuine enough
but the Rose it referred to was the divorced Texas Rose
rather than his current wife, Chicago Rose.
The deceit worked rather well for him.
He was a ladies' man.
He was a handsome, charismatic gentleman.
And the opportunity to spend time with women
was something that he certainly enjoyed.
There were two noteworthy relationships he had
with European women, when he was overseas.
One of them with a French social worker, Jacqueline.
# Lord, I've got a beautiful baby
# Jacqueline is her name... #
When the affair with Jacqueline broke up,
Bill wasn't slow to find himself a new love,
Bill's relationship with Pim van Isveldt
was truly a whirlwind romance.
As their relationship developed,
as he had suggested with Jacqueline,
he spoke very explicitly about getting married.
He sent cards to her talking about "To my wife"
and suggesting names, once he knew she was pregnant.
So he was clearly invested in this relationship,
and a relationship from which their son, Michael Van Isveldt,
was born, in December of 1956.
Loads of letters and postcards
that he used to send my mother from all over Europe, mainly.
My mother always cherished them.
But they're very romantic
and kind and sweet.
Also because the fact that he could hardly write.
So he wrote everything in a phonetic way.
I was one and a half when he died.
Yeah. So what's there to tell?
I have no recollection of him.
It wasn't until I was eight or so,
I started to realise that my father was, or had been,
a world-famous American blues player.
And then slowly, slowly I got aware of that fact and...
I slowly got proud of it, even.
And I changed...that was the time I changed my name
from Michiel, which is my original name,
into Michael, because that was English.
And that gave me the feeling I was closer to him then.
I couldn't hide from the identity of my father
just because of the fact I was black.
Who did know the real Bill Broonzy?
Not his son, not his lovers, nor his listeners.
Broadcasters across Europe were portraying him in his chosen role
as the last of the Mississippi bluesmen.
# Got some trouble in mind
# Babe, I'm so blue
# But I won't
# Won't be blue always
# You know the sun, sun gonna shine
# In my back door someday. #
We swallowed this, kind of, lone folk singer persona, you know,
and it wasn't till later,
when on the radio you'd start hearing or getting hold of records
with his band in Chicago where he's playing
really good plectrum lead guitar and everything, you know.
And we just saw him as the, sort of, troubadour solo folk singer.
I guess the first Broonzy song I heard, The Glory of Love,
was one of the first pieces I tried to learn.
And I've been playing it ever since.
# You've got to give a little
# Take a little
# Let your poor heart break a little
# That's the story of
# That's the glory of love
# Sigh a little and cry a little
# Let the clouds roll by a little
# Oh, baby
# That's the glory of love
# Long as there's the two of us
# We have the world and its charm
# When the world is through with us
# We'll have each other's arms
# Sigh a little and cry a little
# Let the clouds roll by a little
# Oh, that's the story of
# That's the glory of love. #
When I first heard Big Bill play, I was 16.
I was just potty about him.
But you were in a little bubble
and occasionally you would meet someone else
and you'd think you had something really special
and they'd suddenly mention the name Big Bill Broonzy
and suddenly there you were, even more people in the bubble!
There was nothing like that in the early '50s, nothing at all.
It was just,
"This is music, listen to this!"
It was very exciting,
finding this music
that inevitably you thought of it as yours.
And it was a question of getting every single recording you could
and just listening and listening and slowing it down.
It was a bit like a secret society.
It was happening all over the country.
I can only really speak for London.
But I guess all over the country
there were these little places of concentration of fanatics
discovering acoustic blues guitar, you know?!
It was quite underground.
I mean, it sounds stupid,
us little white kids identifying with the real thing, but we did.
You know, we thought, "Let's get on the road, man."
"Jack Kerouac." You know? "Let's get out there and hitch hike."
And we did and it was great, you know.
You did actually change your life.
But what made the biggest impact
on the lives of a generation of British musicians
was a moody Belgian film they saw on television.
# How is everything up in Heaven?
# I would love to know... #
'It turned out that the impact of that 17 minute documentary
# Just for these Earthly things
# Why did you lose your little halo?
# Baby, why'd you drop your wings? #
Well, some of these British teenagers grew up to be
Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, Keith Richards.
And this was their first visual exposure
to a blues musician.
# Heaven... #
It was always one man...
..with his guitar, versus the world.
You know, it wasn't a company.
It wasn't a band or a group or anything.
When it came down to it, it was one guy
who was completely alone
and had no options, no alternatives whatsoever
other than just sing and play to ease his pain.
And that echoed what I felt in many aspects of my life.
Broonzy gave the impression he was very centred in his own world,
And he's a performer, as well.
It's not just his music, it's the totality.
It's like a great actor goes on and assumes a role.
Or he knows his role and he knows his character really well
and performs it.
So it's the whole presence, to me,
not just the playing.
And also he was versatile.
I mean, he wasn't just your gut blues.
He'd play beautiful melodies
and it kind of led you to think
that there are different kinds of blues.
And not everything is set as 12 bars
and set in just that one style.
It's very simple in concept
but to deliver it is another thing.
Bill didn't just deliver his music to Europe.
He went as far as North Africa
and even describes travelling down to Senegal,
becoming the first performer to take the blues "back to Africa".
'I played in Morocco and Algiers
'and then they sent me to a place called Senegal.'
'Back during the time of trading black people,
'which white people did,
'I really think that my foreparents came from there.
'A lot of those people was traded to the Americans.'
Bill reckoned he'd discovered the Broonzy family roots,
their African identity.
But every time he travelled home across the ocean,
he'd find the Chicago music scene moving ever further
from his down-home blues.
The audiences for blues in Chicago in the '50s
were embracing a set of artists
who were really reaching their first flowering -
Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Junior Wells.
And they were the headliners.
'Now these young boys tell me my blues is old-fogeyism.'
'That I don't rate no more in these modernist times.
'And they mean it!
'Don't try coming into these joints on the South Side
and singing one of those down-home Arkansas blues.
'Man, they'll beat you to death!'
Black folks are progressive people.
And we're looking forward.
When we look to the past,
we're looking in the direction of hurt, of slavery,
of vicious racism and night riders,
and minstrelsy with the blackface and the banjo.
The image of things past
is not something that black folks like to hold so closely.
For a lot of years we haven't.
Bill was now burdened with that image of things past
and his health was failing.
He'd become his own invention -
the country blues journey-man,
playing white holiday camps and colleges.
'I've travelled all over, tryin' to keep the old-time blues alive.
'And I'm going to keep on, as long as Big Bill is still living.'
Bill was the artist in residence
at this extraordinary little summer camp.
And I happened to be dropping in one day
to sing the campers some songs.
When I'd met Bill before,
he'd noticed that I'd bought a 16mm movie camera.
Bill said, "Do you have that camera with you?"
And I said, "Yes."
He said, "I think you should film me singing."
# Lord, I'm sittin' on this stump, baby... #
One day later,
he went under the knife for cancer of the throat.
But even though he knew this grim future awaiting him,
he was full of smiles.
# Lord, I'm sittin' on this stump, baby
# I declare I've got a worried mind
# Lord, I left my baby
# Oh, she was standin' in that back door, cryin'. #
The only time we realised the change was when he got sick.
And that was, you know,
he just wasn't able to keep up that...
..face any more.
You know, that happy-go-lucky thing.
I mean, he wasn't grouchy but he just wasn't able to...
You know, he had a hard time talking.
it was like a whisper.
You know, you had to get really close to him.
The blues singer with no voice
had spent his last dollars on a cancer operation.
He died in August 1958,
leaving many friends and admirers.
For some years, Bill's seemingly urbane style of blues
fell out of favour in the States
and was all but forgotten.
But in Britain and Europe,
his reputation as the ambassador of the blues grew,
not least because of his unique mix of charm, modesty
'When you write about me,
'don't say I'm a musician or a guitar player.
"Big Bill recorded 250 blues songs.
"He was a happy man when he was drunk and playin' with women
"and he was liked by all the blues singers.
"Some would get a little jealous
"but Bill would just buy a bottle of whisky and slip off from the party
"and he'd go home to sleep."
# Last night I were layin' sleepin', darling
# And I declare, Bill was all by his self
# Yes but the one that I really loved
# I declare, she was sleepin' someplace else... #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Big Bill Broonzy would inspire a generation of musicians, yet he was not the man they believed him to be. This first, very intimate, biography of the pioneering bluesman uncovers the mystery of who Broonzy really was and follows his remarkable and colourful journey from the racist Deep South to the clubs of Chicago and all across the world. With contributions from: Pete Seeger, Ray Davies, Keith Richards, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn and members of the Broonzy family. Broonzy's own words are read by Clarke Peters.