A myriad of individual contributors created a fabric and vocabulary we group together and call the “blues.” In truth, the blues are just a group of regional African American popular folk musics that were marketed under the same genre.
What if there was an individual that stepped outside these regional bounds? That transcended the genre, only to return to it?
That man is Big Bill Broonzy.
Big Bill was a masterful guitar player who played in almost of the popular styles of the day. His earlier songs feature a raggy undertone, but by the end of his life, he played in a more rural style.
Although his guitar playing is masterful and distinct, his voice is often times the real star of the show. Listen to his version of Trouble in Mind which features very minimalistic guitar accompaniment:
The focus on guitar in modern acoustic blues music is one of the genre’s biggest misconceptions. Blues is a vocal music, and the guitar provides another voice to the chorus. Big Bill’s later material is a master class on how to build a compelling accompaniment behind strong vocals.
That being said, some of Big Bill’s most memorable songs were often played as instrumentals. A couple of the most notables are Hey Hey, which Clapton popularized in his MTV Unplugged performance:
Below if Eric Clapton’s version. Clapton was once quoted as saying that Big Bill was one of his greatest guitar influences:
Another great instrumental by Big Bill was his Shuffle Rag:
Aside from recording legendary blues tracks, Big Bill also recorded some racially charged political songs, often dressed in the guise of spirituals. One of his least tactful songs in this genre is his piece Get Back, take a listen:
Big Bill is a paradigmatic example of a forgotten giant of music history who had a lasting and tangible impact on the evolution of music. He was there during the birth of Chicago blues and mentored many of the greats such as Muddy Waters. In the 1950s, Big Bill toured around Europe and inspired a generation of musicians that later adapted the blues and created Rock and Roll.
There is a popular conception of the invention of modern music starting in the mid-1950 by artists such as Elvis or Bill Haley.
To see the truth, we must look a layer below. If we do, we see men like Big Bill Broonzy waiting.