Big Bill Broonzy provided a ‘key’ to American blues and folk music

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy was born on June 26, 1893, in Scott, Miss., and was raised in Pine Bluffs, Ark. Broonzy was one of seventeen children, born to impoverished parents who were once former slaves. From the age of eight, Broonzy worked to support his family as a plough hand on a farm where he began to take a shining to blues and folk music. In his young working years, Broonzy constructed a box fiddle (to which he quickly became talented at) and often played for small change at segregated picnics. Always full of passion for music, Broonzy joined up with the Army in the First World War, and then moved to Chicago in 1920 after returning from Europe. Here, he hooked up with early blues aficionado, Papa Charlie Jackson, and learned to play guitar. Shortly after, his career as a musician took off.

By the 1920s, Broonzy had gained a reputation of having a “smooth but strong voice,” impressing people with his dexterous guitar playing. His style was that of country blues, but was inflected with urban influences. Quickly gaining popularity, Broonzy cut his first record in 1927 under the guises “Big Bill Johnson” and “Big Bill Broomsley” before finally settling on the name we know today. Through the 1930s and ’40s, Broonzy’s style of ‘urban blues’ took off with working-class black American audiences. However, in the 1950s, Broonzy returned to his folk-blues roots and and became one of the leading figures in the American folk and blues music revival. In his last years of life, Broonzy suffered with cancer of the throat, and died in August of 1958.

Key to the Highway (1941)

The song Key to the Highway is one of many songs to have controversy over its origins. Though the song is affiliated with Broonzy, it was first recorded by piano player Charlie Segar in 1940. A few months after it was released, Broonzy played the song on guitar in a version with Jazz Gillum before recording his own version in 1941. While all three of the artists take credit as being authors of the song, Broonzy’s acoustic, eight-bar blues version has remained the most popular and widely known.

The song itself is about a bluesman who leaves home after splitting with his lover to travel the highways.

I got the key to the highway, and I’m billed out and bound to go
I’m gonna leave here runnin’, cause walkin’ is most too slow
I’m goin’ down on the border, now where I’m better known
Cause woman you don’t do nothin’, but drive a good man ‘way from home

The melody used in Broonzy’s version of the song is reminiscent of a melody that he first heard in his youth in Arkansas, which his uncle played on the banjo. Key to the Highway has gained a reputation as being an “anthem of the homeless” and has inspired several artists (including Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, B.B. King and The Allman Brothers) to cover the song in their own versions. The song has become a “blues standard” and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation in 2010.


Charles Waring. “Big Bill Broonzy: A Biography”

“The Big Bill Broonzy Story: A Captivating Tale Of The Blues.” udiscovermusic. 12, July 2019.