Graded on a Curve:
Big Bill Broonzy,
Live in Amsterdam 1953

Born on June 26, 1903, William Lee Conley Broonzy, aka Big Bill Broonzy, was a giant of the blues. Cutting his first sides for Paramount in 1927, an extensive stretch of recordings followed across the next two decades. After a break in the late 1940s, he experienced a career resurrection that lasted until his untimely death in 1958, a sustained second wind that carried him to Europe, where he cut records for the Vogue label in France and was captured in performances of astonishingly high fidelity in the Netherlands. Grooving into vinyl a substantial portion of Broonzy’s shows in the titular city, Liberation Hall’s Live in Amsterdam 1953 is available November 25 for Record Store Day Black Friday.

To appropriately comprehend the level of Big Bill Broonzy’s popularity, please consider his prolific output across the decade of the Great Depression. The brutal 1930s economic downturn decimated the young record industry, which had been thriving before the crash, and snuffed out recording opportunities for dozens of bluesmen, with a handful of those musicians later “rediscovered” in connection with the folk music boom of the 1950s-’60s. Broonzy was an early catalyst-beneficiary of that boom, and would’ve surely experienced further success had he not died in ’58.

Broonzy’s late ’40s sabbatical from touring (reportedly through doctor’s orders) found him working as a janitor at Iowa State University. It didn’t take him long to return to activity, and when he did there was a comfortable shift into folk blues mode as he kept company with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Pete Seeger.

That Big Bill choose to hang around with ol’ Pete and Studs Terkel as he pivoted into a somewhat easygoing style no doubt ruffled the feathers of many a subsequent blues purist, particularly as the two Yazoo volumes of his early stuff, The Young Big Bill Broonzy 1928-1936 and Do That Guitar Rag: 1928-1935 are loaded with hokum smokers, wicked rags, and uncut bluesy oomph. Columbia’s Roots N’ Blues comp Good Time Tonight is also an excellent survey of his more urban 1930s motions that benefit from the cleaned up sound that was the Roots N’ Blues series specialty.

Live in Amsterdam 1953 benefits from even higher fidelity courtesy of Dutch filmmaker and artist Louis Van Gasteren, and the performances he documented on February 26 and 28 of ’53 are revelatory. This album marks the vinyl debut of those shows, grabbing most of the February 26 set as it mingles, in the words of Broonzy himself as he converses with the audience at the start, “spirituals, blues and folk songs.”

The traditional “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” (Deadheads know it well) fits securely into the folk song category, but then a gripping, meditative version of “When the Sun Goes Down,” a Leroy Carr composition, harkens back to Broonzy’s early days, and it’s followed with the instrumental “House Rent Stomp,” a number that should easily please fans of the Yazoo comps. From there, “Willie Mae” is a solid blues with a welcome touch of guitar fleetness; Broonzy might not be as dexterous as he was in the 1920-’30s, but he’s still plenty nimble.

Side one closes with “Black, Brown and While,” a now long-famous song delving into the topic of racial discrimination in the USA that Broonzy unsurprisingly had to travel to France to put on record, as the Vogue label released it in 1951 as a single (it was also issued in the UK). While the song’s social commentary does fit into Broonzy’s folk blues orientation, the reality is he had the song in his book for a good while. It’s just that US companies were either too bigoted or cowardly to put it out.

Side two opens with “Caribbean Rag,” and maybe it’s just the title, but I was reminded a little of Joseph Spence, though to be clear, Broonzy’s style is nowhere near as idiosyncratic. Next is the traditional spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” swinging back into the folk blues zone with authority, but then “Mind My Own Business” is a tough-toned blues and the first of back-to-back Broonzy originals; “Just a Dream,” follows, showcasing Broonzy’s deftness as a blues shouter and a humorist at once.

The brief closing track “Glory of Love” injects a dose of string dazzle into what’s essential a campfire rouser. Altogether, Live in Amsterdam 1953 is a vital document of Big Bill Broonzy navigating the final stages of his long career like an utter champ.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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