Big Bill Broonzy: In the Words of Riesman and Walz

Interview with Bob Riesman

 Bob Riesman is co-editor of Chicago Folk: Images of the Sixties Music Scene: The Photographs of Raeburn Flerlage (2009). He produced and co-wrote the television documentary American Roots Music: Chicago and was a contributor to Routledge’s Encyclopedia of the Blues. I sat down with him to talk about the upcoming presentation “Big Bill Broonzy: Words and Music”.

FOB: What got you started on this book?

BOB: I was looking for a blues or folk music project. I started looking at leading figures like Leadbelly and came across Broonzy. I started listening to his recordings. What peaked my interest was reading his autobiography, Big Bill Blues (1955) and noting his storytelling abilities and creativity.

FOB: You’ve done other research on folk music. How does this compare?

BOB: I started this research a decade ago. The other folk book was an outgrowth from the Broonzy research. I worked with Ron Cohen on that one [Chicago Folk: Images of the Sixties Music Scene (2009)].

Broonzy, Win Stracke, Studs Terkel, and Ray Flerlage started the Folk Revival. “I Come For to Sing” was a folk song review that debut at Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago’s campus in 1947. Terkel moderated. The format was intriguing – Terkel would name a topic then one of the players would play a song that addressed that topic. The group was able to illustrate the range of folk music and its relevancy.

Their group played every Monday at The Blue Note, a well-known jazz club. They brought recognition to folk music as a viable commercial offering. The Gate of Horn opened in 1956. By 1957, Old Town School of Folk Music opened.

FOB: You describe Broonzy as somewhat of an enigma. Is that what drew you to him?

BOB: My admiration grew in Broonzy’s power of imagination and creativity. The song “Just A Dream”, which he played at Carnegie Hall in 1938, showed his ability to write a story or song using that imagination. His fearlessness in speaking out against racial prejudice is illustrated in “Black, Brown, and White Blues”. And the way he was often mentioned as a mentor to others, like Muddy Waters, drew me to him. Even my interview with Eric Clapton came out of Clapton’s desire for people to know of his admiration for Broonzy.

Friends of Blackstone Library present Chris Walz and Bob Riesman Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 in “Big Bill Broonzy: Words and Music”, 6-7:30pm. Blackstone Library is located at 4904 S. Lake Park Ave. Blackstone Public Library is a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

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