Big Bill Broonzy was a hugely influential performer who overcame the endemic racism and Jim Crow laws in the southern states at the beginning of the last century, and went on (in Chicago) to found, almost single-handedly, a branch of blues music (small tight groups with guitar, piano, bass, drums, occasional harmonica or trumpet or sax and with front vocal) which spread from its Chicago base across the world. When that genre failed to provide Bill with sufficient income/ stimulation, he reinvented himself as a (mainly) solo performer, selling himself as a son of the soil and as a raconteur who claimed (and commented on) links to slavery and to the grinding poverty of life in Mississippi and Arkansas at the start of the 20th Century.
Bill recorded hundreds of songs, a large number of which he wrote himself. Between 1927 (his first recording) and 1947, he recorded 290 pieces, frequently demonstrating amazing guitar and vocal skills. In the period after 1947, to his death in 1958, Bill delighted audiences with his "I am a folk singer - the last of the bluesmen" persona, telling tales of life on the farm, in the US army, in the windy city and of love lost and found to say nothing of having fun - something Bill seems to have a penchant for. He often introduced himself by saying "My name is William Lee Conley Broonzy".
Bill regaled audiences with tales of his birth on 26 June 1893 and that of his twin sister Laney and of his father's response to being told he had twins to care for. He claimed to have served in the US Army in France from 1918 - 1919 and to have been invited by a record company to travel to the Delta following a major flood in 1927: Turns out, that a good deal of this was fiction. Robert Reisman's impeccable research suggests a birth date for Bill of 26th June 1903 and that Laney was not a twin at all but four years older than Bill. The reported army experience was Bill's factional description of an amalgam of the stories told by black soldiers returning from overseas. The alleged trip to the Mississippi Delta to see the flooding was similarly untrue, but was a factional account into which Bill inserted himself. It turns out too that Broonzy is not even his real name. He was born into the world with the name Lee Conly (note spelling) Bradley; and so it goes on. Bill Broonzy had a vivid imagination and a way of drawing people into his life that made you convinced he was telling the truth.
Reisman has done a magnificent job here in unpicking the fabric of time and re-arranging the pieces. But it must be understood that this revisionist work in no way affects the contribution made by Broonzy/Bradley to the blues and to music in general. His open manner and his life experience on the farm (he was a skilled plough hand - no doubt about that) and his sharp mind, allowed him to craft the most beautiful, funny and emotional lyrics and to learn to play the guitar in a way which more than 50 years after his death leaves some of us open mouthed with amazement. Reisman's writing style, the depth and breadth of his research and his clear affection for his subject, make this book a must for anyone with more than a passing interest in the blues and in the music of one of the genre's towering figures.
As a long time fan of Big Bill Broonzy I might be biased but this book is just fantastic. It's also very well written and easy to read. An excellent account of the life and times of one of blues music's flamboyant characters.