Big Bill Broonzy

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Big Bill Broonzy was born on June 26, 1893, and died on August 14 or 15, 1958. He was a prolific American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. His career began in the 1920s when he played country blues to mostly African-American audiences.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, he successfully navigated a transition in style to a more urban blues sound popular with working-class African-American audiences. In the 1950s a return to his traditional folk-blues roots made him one of the leading figures of the emerging American folk music revival and an international star.

His birth site and date are disputed. While he claimed birth in Scott, Mississippi, an entire body of emerging research compiled by blues historian Robert Reisman suggests that Broonzy was actually born in Jefferson County, Arkansas.

Broonzy claimed he was born in 1893 and many sources report that year, but after his death, family records suggested that the year was actually 1903. Soon after his birth the family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Bill spent his youth.

He began playing music at an early age. At the age of 10, he made himself a fiddle from a cigar box and learned how to play spirituals and folk songs from his uncle, Jerry Belcher. He and a friend named Louis Carter, who played a homemade guitar, began performing at social and church functions.

After arriving in Chicago, Broonzy made the switch from fiddle to guitar. He learned guitar from minstrel and medicine show veteran Papa Charlie Jackson, who began recording for Paramount Records in 1924.

Through the 1920s Broonzy worked a string of odd jobs, including Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and custodian, to supplement his income, but his main interest was music. He played regularly at rent parties and social gatherings, steadily improving his guitar playing.

During this time he wrote one of his signature tunes, a solo guitar piece called “Saturday Night Rub”.In 1934 Broonzy moved to Bluebird Records and began recording with pianist Bob “Black Bob” Call. His fortunes soon improved. With Call his music was evolving to a stronger R&B sound, and his singing sounded more assured and personal.

In 1937, he began playing with pianist Joshua Altheimer, recording and performing using a small instrumental group, including “traps” (drums) and double bass as well as one or more melody instruments (horns and/or harmonica). In March 1938 he began recording for Vocalion Records.

In 1949, Broonzy became part of a touring folk music revue formed by Win Stracke called I Come for to Sing, which also included Studs Terkel and Lawrence Lane. Terkel called him the key figure in this group. The revue had some success thanks to the emerging folk revival movement.

When the revue played Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Broonzy met a local couple, Prof. Leonard and Lillian Feinberg, who would find him a custodial job at ISU when a doctor ordered Bill to leave the road for his health later in 1949.

He remained in Ames until 1951, and then resumed touring. The guitar on the left is a Martin model 00028, a beautiful instrument. Bill played one of these from the 1950s to his death on 15th August 1958.