Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy (26 June 1898 – 14 August 1958) was a prolific American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. His career began in the 1920s when he played Country blues to mostly black audiences. Through the ‘30s and ‘40s he successfully navigated a transition in style to a more urban blues sound popular with white 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 long and varied career marks him as one of the key figures in the development of blues music in the 20th century.
Broonzy copyrighted more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including both adaptations of traditional folk songs and original blues songs. As a blues composer, he was unique in that his compositions reflected the many vantage points of his rural-to-urban experiences.
He was born William Lee Conley Broonzy in Bolivar, Mississippi, one of Frank Broonzy and Mittie Belcher's 17 children. Broonzy claimed he was born in 1893, and many sources report that year. But after his death his twin sister produced a birth certificate giving it as 1898, the currently accepted date Soon after his birth the family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Bill spent most of 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 These early performances included playing at "two-stages", picnics where whites danced on one side of the stage and blacks on the other.
In 1915, 17-year-old Broonzy was married and working his own land as a sharecropper. He had decided to give up the fiddle and become a preacher. There is a story that he was offered $50 and a new violin if he would play four days at a local venue. Before he could respond to the offer, his wife took the money and spent it, so he had to play. In 1916 his crop and stock were wiped out by drought. Broonzy went to work in the local coal mine until he was drafted into the Army in 1917. Broonzy served two years in Europe during the first world war. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, Broonzy returned for a short time to Arkansas and played clubs in the Little Rock area. As prospects were bleak for a young black man in the south, Broonzy moved north to Chicago in 1920 in search of opportunity
In 1955, with the assistance of Belgian writer Yannick Bruynoghe, Broonzy published his autobiography, entitled Big Bill Blues. He toured worldwide to Africa, South America, the Pacific region and across Europe into early 1956. In 1957 Broonzy was one of the founding faculty members of the Old Town School of Folk Music. At the school's opening night on December 1, he taught a class his song "The Glory of Love".
By 1958 Broonzy was suffering from the effects of throat cancer. He died August 15, 1958, and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Illinois.
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