Bob Riesman

Bob Riesman
I Feel So Good – The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy

The University of Chicago Press

By David Wilson
October 2011

In the foreword to this book, Peter Guralnick states “This sharply etched portrait gives us a Big Bill Broonzy not so much larger-than-life as full of life … freed for the first time from the encumbrance of myth …” Further enthusiastic endorsements come from Peter Townshend , Pete Seeger and David Evans. I am not here to contradict any of them.

After reading this biography, I have ungrudging affection and respect for Big Bill, admiration for his skills and acceptance of his foibles.

With simple statement of fact, Riesman accomplishes considerably more with this work. By narrating one man’s struggles to survive, physically, emotionally and economically in a time and place antagonistic to all of his race, Riesman silhouettes the oppressive racist atmosphere of 20th century American society by describing the life and experiences of one man, a musician, in pursuit of the same goals and assurances each of us seeks.

One technique to survive in such a situation is to create multiple personas, but being expected over a period of time to be consistent or keep track of all the details is asking rather much. Of course, early on, no one, let alone Big Bill himself, ever expected his details to become the subject of such scrutiny. His CV became a construct evolving over time that always shares the truth of his reality while exchanging elements of detail, the way a novel in progress is constantly being tweaked to best express the author’s intent. But it does lead to confusion for would be historians. Riesman is up to the task of sorting out much of the fable and without sacrificing the drama.

One theme which the author constantly underlines is the effort that Big Bill seems to make to mentor and assist the fortunes and careers of other musicians, and as the tale unfolds we are introduced to many contemporary legends, including Muddy Waters and Little Walter, being fostered by the master. Bill seemingly understood that the success of the few depended on a healthy cast of supporting characters who may rise and fall independently.

Legends of the past play their parts in Bill’s story as well and we gain nodding acquaintance with many of them as mention is made of Robert Johnson, Booker White, Tampa Red, Willie Dixon, Yank Rachel, Sleepy John Estes and Lil Green, to name just a few. While branded as blues-men and blues-ladies, they are clearly far more versatile musicians and performers. One need only listen to the incredible range of Big Bill Broonzy’s programs and recordings to see that he was the consummate showman, songster and entertainer.

If all this were not enough, one further revelation is how Big Bill through his ventures to the UK and Europe during the ‘50s almost singlehandedly seeded the passion for rural and urban blues in that part of the world. His recorded performances, listened to and aspired to by the likes of Eric Clapton and Peter Townshend along with a myriad of their cohorts, gave birth to music that came back to these shores and generated the passion for blues and blues derivatives we embrace today.

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