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Monday, Dec. 5, 2011

Discover 'The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy'

Bob Riesman provides complete history and analysis

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I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy (University of Chicago Press) traces Broonzy's rise as an internationally heralded blues star through his role in the post-World War II folk/blues revival. The respected music scholar Peter Guralnick, in his foreword, defines Broonzy's importance: "Sometimes it seems as if Big Bill Broonzy must have supplied the ur-text for each new generation that has come to the blues for the last 60 years."

Biographer Bob Riesman has captured the dominant force of Broonzy's presence. There are numerous important photographs that accompany his penetrating analysis. We have a complete history and analysis of the complicated man who altered the course of a large portion of popular music. Along with Guralnick's comments is an "Appreciation" from Pete Townshend, who says, "A record by Big Bill Broonzy was the first blues record I purchased." Broonzy had tremendous impact on British blues, and the book includes interviews from Ray Davies and Eric Clapton testifying to the influence of his rolling narrative style as well as his guitar mannerisms.

From the mid-1930s to the mid-'40s Broonzy wrote more than 200 songs, offering views on numerous topics from a variety of perspectives. "Many of Bill's compositions were intended to be music that people could dance to... But few other blues songwriters of his era produced as much material of as consistently high a level of quality as Bill did," Riesman writes. "If there had been the blues equivalent of a Tin Pan Alley...in the 1930s and '40s, Bill would have been recognized as one of its most prominent figures." Irony floats back and forth in Broonzy's lyrics on inventive waves of perception. His narrative is always rife with a fresh image for any given topic, pushing up against anticipated blues stories and their outcomes with a poetic mind-set.

With the fascinating and well-researched story Riesman tells in I Feel So Good, one wonders why the world does not know more about this bluesman. His fate, however, was to be eclipsed by the reputations of Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters (who he helped to attain recognition, it should be noted). Perhaps this book will alter matters, and this is its most important cultural possibility. With I Feel So Good, Broonzy can now be re-evaluated and our perceptions of the mysteriousness we attribute to blues music can also become more educated and much less subjective.