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.