Music Review: Big Bill Broonzy - Trouble In Mind

Music Review: Big Bill Broonzy - Trouble In Mind
November 1, 2010
seattle pi

For fans of folk-blues, the most authentic recording is that of a singer accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, strumming chords to keep rhythm by singing, and finger-picking on some hot licks in between verses. In 2000, Smithsonian Folkways released just such an album: Trouble In Mind, a posthumous collection of 24 classic tracks by legendary musician Big Bill Broonzy.

Broonzy was born in 1898, and was influential in both blues and folk music until his death in 1958. Throughout his lifetime, he copyrighted over 300 songs. Some of these were new arrangements of traditional folk and blues songs, but many were his own compositions.

Big Bill Broonzy’s music reflects an unusual viewpoint in blues music. Broonzy was born in the Deep South and began playing folk, blues, work songs and spirituals on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, the singer moved north, to Chicago, and had embraced electric instruments more than 15 years before he died. He is one of a few blues artists who successfully transitioned from the Delta blues of the 1920s and 1930s to the post-war Chicago style, and his lyrics often reflect the troubles he had in the transition between his country upbringing and his new urban lifestyle.

Trouble In Mind is an excellent compilation of Broonzy’s material. While it does not include any of his work with electric guitar, it showcases his talent on the acoustic quite well. The album also achieves a good balance between his versions of traditional songs, and Broonzy’s original compositions.

Trouble in Mind opens with a catchy, bright guitar solo that gives way to the foot-stomping rhythmic accompaniment of the original tune “Hey, Hey, Baby.” Big Bill then sings three traditional songs, “Frankie and Johnny,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Joe Turner Blues,” a song that was written in 1890. These songs combine his upbeat, jangly guitar work with excellent storytelling and a level of vocal emotion rarely seen in contemporary recordings.

The rest of the album alternates between expertly arranged renditions of traditional songs (“C.C. Rider,” “This Train (Bound for Glory”) and moving original pieces. Some, such as “Key to the Highway” and “When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)” are emotion-filled ballads about the life of a rambler or a troubled relationship, respectively. Others, such as “Black, Brown, and White” and “When Will I Get To Be Called A Man” contain direct social commentary on the race relations of the time, in both the North and the South.

Big Bill Broonzy was influenced by his contemporaries, such as Son House and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He went on to influence legends such as Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. Some of his original songs have since become blues standards. The album Trouble In Mind is an excellent introduction to the life and music of Big Bill Broonzy, an important influence on the development of blues and folk music, and any fan of these genres would be well-advised to obtain a copy.
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