Blues: A Homegrown Story X

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“Last week, we talked about how Chicago was of historical influence on African American life and the blues. In the 20s and 30s, Blacks began to seek music that reflected the energy of the city which is different than the southern rural genre that preceded,” host Louis Rosen begins. “Big Bill Broomzy (Lee Conley Bradley 1903-1958) kind of paved the way for (tonight’s main focus), Muddy Waters. A good singer and songwriter, he straddled the worlds of folk and blues going electric before Waters.”

One of 17 children, Broonzy was raised in Arkansas. He built a fiddle from a cigar box, taught himself to play spirituals and folk songs and performed with a friend who played homemade guitar. By 17, he was a married sharecropper. He was briefly a preacher in tandem with farming. This came to a halt when Broonzy was wiped out by drought, then drafted. After service, single again in 1920, he relocated to Chicago. Under tutelage of veteran performer Papa Charlie Jackson, he learned guitar.

Like most Black musicians starting out, Broonzy was a pullman porter, a cook, a factory worker – he took what jobs he could get while playing rent parties and picnics on the side. In 1927, the musician wrote his first successful composition, “Saturday Night Rub.” We listen to the guitar instrumental. A photo of Broonzy is on the screen, cigarette dangling from his mouth, otherwise clean cut and neatly dressed. The tune has an old timey ragtime feel.

Jackson got his friend an audition with Paramount Records. Initial test recordings, made with John Thomas on vocals, were unsuccessful. Broonzy persisted. We next hear 1927’s “Big Bill’s Blues” with the writer singing: “Now some people said The Big Bill Blues ain’t bad/Lord, it must not have been them Big Bill Blues they had.” Repetitive chords back a strong vocal. Unfortunately, this was hardly more popular that his first efforts. Broonzy found himself in a traditional blues band.

Everything changed in 1938 with John Hammond’s Carnegie Hall Concerts From Spirituals to Blues. When Hammond couldn’t find Robert Johnson, he asked Broonzy to fill in, fostering the latter’s reputation. The musician also had a small role on Broadway in Swingin’ On a Dream, Gilbert Seldes’ jazz-infused version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which included Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Maxine Sullivan as Titania, musical supervisor Benny Goodman, and sets based on Walt Disney cartoons (with Disney’s permission). It was a flop.

From the 1940s to the mid 1950s, Broonzy played electric. From then, white audiences thought overalls and solo acoustic guitar more authentic, so the business turned back. We listen to eight bar blues “Key to the Highway” also covered by Derek and The Dominos and Eric Clapton, who claims the guitarist as a major influence. Then the iconic “This Train (is bound for glory),” which epitomizes the folk era. Vocal is lyrical, expressive: “This train don’t care if you’re white or Black/On this train everybody’s treated just like a man…”

Broonzy was outspoken. His “Black, Brown and White” caused a stir in the 1950s: “They says if you was white, should be all right/If you was brown, stick around/But as you’s Black m-mm brother git/Back git back git back…”and later “They was payin’ him a dollar an hour/They was payin’ me fifty cent…” “With this song,” Rosen comments, “He’s addressing not just Jim Crow, but racism that happens within the Black community.”

Repertoire included ragtime, hokum blues, country blues, jazz, folk songs, and spirituals. After World War II, his songwriting skills turned to more sophisticated material. Broonzy toured Europe in 1951 (John Lennon cited him as an early influence) and returned to gigs here with prominent folk artists.

“This is just a taste of Big Bill Broonzy. If you want to listen to more, there’s a marvelous 1957 film shot by Pete Seeger where the musician is just sitting, playing guitar,” Rosen tells us. We close this portion of the evening with “When Did You Leave Heaven?” (Richard A. Whiting/Walter Bullock) offering the soulful sound of Broonzy. In 1955, the artist published his autobiography, Big Bill Blues. “Broonzy was the top dog in Chicago before Waters arrived,” Rosen says.

McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters (1913-1983) grew up on The Stovall Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi playing guitar and harmonica. He was raised by his grandmother, Della Grant, who gave him the nickname “Muddy” because he loved to play in the muddy water of neighboring Deer Creek. “I used to belong to church…a good Baptist…I got all of my good moaning and trembling going on for me right out of church.” (Muddy Waters)

In 1941 and 42, Alan Lomax and John Work recorded Waters for the Library of Congress. Like John Hammond in 1938, they were looking for Robert Johnson. The two did a field recording of “I Be’s Trouble” with Waters on acoustic slide guitar. It’s textured strum and slide. “Man, you don’t know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks…” (Muddy Waters)

The young man arrived in Chicago in 1943 with an $11 Sears Roebuck guitar and was immediately able to get a job on a loading dock. He sought out Broonzy, Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, and played on the South Side as much as possible. Broonzy used him to open his shows. In 1944, Waters bought his first electric guitar in order to be heard above the din at raucous taverns. It took three years until Waters found an opportunity to record. Unfortunately, white producer Lester Melrose was a middle man and record companies thought the sound too old fashioned.

A year later, however, Waters was introduced to the new record label, Aristocrat which was gradually taken over by Leonard and Phil Chess becoming the now famous Chess Records. Leonard felt people still wanted the country blues other companies were then ignoring. He added a bass and recorded “I Can’t Be Satisfied” with Waters, then personally drove to beauty shops, appliance stores – everywhere Black people conducted business. “The records were sold out by mid-afternoon. Stores started to limit the number of copies you could buy,” Rosen remarks. Waters, who’d been driving a truck, had to fork out $1.10 to buy his own copy. (Retail price was 79 cents.)

Leonard drove south to every radio station on the map, payola in his pocket, booze in a bag, whatever it took to get his artists on the air. Chess Records had no distribution set up. We listen to “Rollin’ and Tumblin,” one of the most famous blues songs ever written: “Well, if the river was whiskey, and I was a diving duck (2x)/ Well, I would dive to the bottom, never would I come up…” The flip side of the 78 contained another important song that inspired one of the most famous rock n’roll groups in history, “Rolling Stone.” “Well, my mother told my father/Just before hmmm, I was born/I got a boy child’s comin’/Gonna be, he’s gonna be a rolling stone.”

The 2008 film Cadillac Records purports to tell the story of Leonard and Chess Records. “When The Rolling Stones first came to America, they insisted on recording at Chess Studios,” Rosen notes. Muddy Waters’ band became a proving ground for some of the city’s best blues talent. Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmie Rogers, and Willie Dixon had their own careers. In the mid-fifties, his records often charted.

You might say The Beatles brought back old American Rock n’ Roll, while The Rolling Stones brought back American blues. The Yardbirds and John Mayall also repopularized the genre.

“The Rolling Stones were middle class kids. They heard something bona fide in the music. Songs weren’t white-washed fantasy ideas of what life and romance was. Also, in a very depressed England filled with post war rubble, they identified with the African American alienation and struggle. The BBC wouldn’t play this music for awhile. If you want to get young people interested in something, ban it. Here we made the assumption the music was for lower class people, in England, it was exotic.” (Louis Rosen)

At the time, an offshore boat called Radio Luxemburg – “The Boat that Rocked” – played Black music and rock n’ roll. The 2009 film Pirate Radio depicts gleeful renegades.

Muddy Waters introduced a new generation to Chicago Blues at The Newport Jazz Festival in the 1960s. He won the first of three Grammys in 1972.

All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen

Louis Rosen

The Blues is the purest home-grown music that America ever produced, a complex, profound expression of life’s essential desires and struggles. It came from places as varied as the Mississippi Delta, the Texas panhandle, New Orleans, Chicago, the Eastern Seaboard and New York City. It is the essential musical language of artists as diverse as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. Louis Rosen

This is a subscription Series from the 92Y

Photo of Mr. Rosen courtesy of Louis Rosen
Opening picture from Shutterstock

About Alix Cohen (1081 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.