Big Bill Broonzy acted as a bridge between the downhome acoustic blues of the south and pre-war Chicago blues of the north. From the Piedmont region of America, his Arkansas upbringing fostered his ragtime-style roots. This swinging rhythm, often referred to as ragtime blues or Piedmont blues, was a subgenre he perfected alongside others like Elizabeth Cotten. These pioneers were plucking and singing as far back as the 1920s, laying down the first recordings of what would become worldwide musical movements.
In the ’50s, just before his death, Broonzy became a key figure in the folk revival wave that lasted through the ’60s. Fusing genres from country to jazz, fans of Broonzy are doggedly loyal in part because of the sheer magnitude of his talent. No matter how many times you listen to one of his recordings, you’ll always come across a brilliant new aspect of his playing you hadn’t noticed before.
If you’re not familiar with Big Bill yet, you’re in for a treat. During his career, he recorded over 300 compositions. We took on the tough task of narrowing that down to his top 10. Read on for what we consider to be the best Big Bill Broonzy songs ever released.
10. This Train
An uplifting spiritual, ‘This Train’ is a gospel standard that is also often referred to as ‘This Train is Bound for Glory.’ Its documentation is traced all the way back to 1922, with its popularity stemming from church communities in the south who often sang it as a hymn. Musicologists John and Alan Lomax documented different early versions with their “field recordings” across southern states in the ’30s. Electric guitar trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe brought the tune into the mainstream with her releases in both the ’30s and the ’50s. Normally heavy on guitar work for his performances, Broonzy’s interpretation features him keeping fretwork simple, his soothing, joyful voice and comforting rhythm serving listeners well for this praise number.
Recommended: Our pick of gospel classics.
9. Guitar Shuffle
One of Big Bill Broonzy’s classic instrumental pieces, any guitar student interested in learning ragtime blues will soon find themselves working through this piece. As you listen to ‘Guitar Shuffle,’ it’s hard to fathom just one man is making all of this sound, a thumping bass line and a constant melodious solo resonating in perfect harmony. This was a trademark style of ragtime guitar, and guys like Broonzy and Blind Blake perfected it. Ragtime blues mirrored Piedmont blues stylings. Today, these subgenres are often used interchangeably. Unlike delta blues hailing from Mississippi, ragtime blues present in states like Arkansas and Tennessee had a far more joyous tone. The notes often danced together, creating so much sound listeners thought the musician on the recording might be playing a piano. For ‘Guitar Shuffle,’ ragtime, Piedmont blues, and even early country stylings are all present, creating a masterful example of Broonzy’s skillset on his treasured “Gibson Model O” guitar.
8. Backwater Blues
While Broonzy is known for his plucky Piedmont style of playing, he could also play delta-inspired 12-bar blues with the best of them. His vibrato-tinged vocals make Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’ especially engaging. Once you start this track, you have to listen to the end. If you didn’t grow up in the swamps of the south, Broonzy will take you there with this classic, muddy effort. Channeling the heartache often found in deep south lamentations, he reflects on his disheartened state, likening it to the rain outside that’s been falling for days. Here he proves he isn’t just a gifted songwriter, but a studious interpreter as well. Originally released by Smith in 1927, Broonzy brought this one back to life in 1954, just four years before he passed away after a hard-fought battle with cancer.
7. Bill Bailey
“Bill Bailey, won’t you please come home.” Broonzy’s ragtime influences meant he was well-versed in the jazz genre. With ‘Bill Bailey,’ he trades in his more blues-centric pieces for a jazz standard dating back to 1902. Written by Hughie Cannon, this was the track that became his most beloved contribution to the burgeoning jazz world. A fun little ditty about a troubled relationship, Cannon actually got the inspiration from a real-life couple he was friends with. Broonzy’s edition is more “country-fied,” with twangy licks as he leaves a flawless, melodic solo behind to transition into another verse. A really unique aspect of this song is Bill’s ability to seemlessly combine traditional roots elements, like dominant 7th chords that give the song a downhome vibe, while also beautifully executing a more syncopated, jazzy rhythm at times. This country, blues, and jazz fusion originated in the New Orleans area, and was often referred to as “dixieland jazz.”
Recommended: Our playlist of New Orleans-inspired songs.
6. Letter to My Baby
Over the course of his recording career, Bill penned quite a few tunes centered around telegrams he’d either sent or received. This was still one of the most effective ways to communicate with loved ones back in the day, so it makes sense that he’d find inspiration for his own songs from the letters he’d write and get in the mail. ‘Letter to My Baby’ revisits Broonzy’s knack for creating country-blues compositions. The lyrics follow a 12-bar blues pattern, with him repeating one line multiple times followed by a response for the last line of the verse. Though the song opens up with Broonzy sadly reflecting on the distance between him and his lover, it soon turns into a love note with him reminding her of his continued devotion to their relationship. Aside from his usual lively guitar work, his voice is especially expressive in this number, with folksy twang lightly worked into his performance.
5. Mean Old World
A recording from early on in his career in the ’30s, ‘Mean Old World’ coincides with Broonzy’s decision to leave the south and move up to Chicago for his music career. The jazz era was still going strong when he made it to the Windy City, and he was one of the first to bring blues music out of the southern region to northern audiences. Many of Broonzy’s recordings feature just his guitar and his voice, so this take is particularly special. Horn work fades in right away with rollicking piano; these added layers creating a jazzy, big band sound for the blues musician. But don’t worry, Big Bill’s roots are ever-present in the song, which features him singing beautifully about his heart that’s been broken by a two-timing lover (ouch!).
Recommended: Our pick of songs about the Windy City (Chicago).
4. I Get the Blues When it Rains
Bends and slides are key elements to this “rag” piece (ragtime compositions were called “rags’ for short back in the day, or “early rags” for the genre’s founding works). Another fast-paced, bouncing number, Broonzy once again glides eloquently through the intricate guitar work. It’s surprising his vocals are equally as eloquent. Ragtime tunes often require physical endurance from the player, much like cajun music of New Orleans requires rhythm players to have equal parts finesse and endurance. You would think once it was time for Big Bill to chime in with vocals he’d be gassed. On the contrary, he exhibits as much control over his honey-butter pipes as he does his guitar. In the south, it is often said “mother nature rules all,” so a common theme running through country and blues music often revolves around the region’s topsy-turvy weather. In this case, another storm has come Broonzy’s way, definitely signifying a metaphor for life’s hardships, and all the rain has him down. This blues song won’t give you the blues, though. Quite the opposite, its dancing rhythm brings comfort and joy with every listen.
3. Hey, Hey Baby
In order to truly understand just how talented Broonzy was, one has to take a look at his unique playing technique. Guitarists these days still try to emulate it, but they’re so focused on playing “clean” that most reinterpreted Big Bill tunes come in lackluster fashion. The guitarist used his thumb to constantly keep a beat which also acted as the bass line. But instead of just hitting one string and letting it ring out, he’d heavily dampen his strings and hit two or three at a time, creating a highly percussive “bottom” feel. This powered his rhythm, and solos, which featured all kinds of fingerpicking work on the top strings. ‘Hey, Hey’ is an astounding representation of his handiwork, the intricate instrumentation driving a story about a man who is trying to level with his lover’s overpowering presence in his life. Aside from ‘Guitar Shuffle (see above),’ this is another instrument-focused fan favorite. Eric Clapton also does a great version of this for his ’90s Unplugged session.
2. Black, Brown and White
Written based on his own experiences with discrimination, it wasn’t until after his passing that ‘Black, Brown and White’ became part of mainstream music conversations in America. When he wrote it in the mid-1940s, labels in the states weren’t interested in publishing it. It would be several more years before he could record the candid tune. That finally happened when he reached international fame in Europe. While performing several dates across the pond, he also recorded the single, finally being able to release it publicly. This opened up the song to his platform, and he began performing it every chance he got while in the states. The song caught on with his grassroots approach. All the musicians who frequented his shows began learning and playing the song publicly as well. After his death in the ’50s, the song became a symbol for several organizations during the forthcoming decade’s civil rights movement. Oftentimes listed as ‘Black, Brown, and White,’ in America it was also ultimately released as the single, ‘Get Back.’
1. Glory of Love
A vintage number 1 hit from the 1930s, this sugary song was first released by the “King of Swing” himself, Benny Goodman. It’s stood the test of time through decades, with many other popular artists like Otis Redding recording covers. ‘Glory of Love’ was also used in two hit films, the 1960’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and the late ’80s classic, Beaches. While the tune is considered to be a pop standard, Broonzy’s version goes deeper than mainstream consumerism. The first minute and a half of his performance is an instrumental showcase, with blues riffs and licks added in to give it that one-of-a-kind Big Bill flare. His smooth and husky voice gives the bubblegum track a welcomed hardy, Americana tone. Considered to be one of Broonzy’s most beloved interpretations, the country-blues artist takes the song to new heights, above others who have recorded the hit in the past. This timeless rendition takes the top spot on our list of the best Big Bill Broonzy songs.