Back in the early 1970s I worked at an International House of Pancakes in a suburban Maryland town. The pay was lousy, the work was hot and rapid-fire, and my fellow workers were all pretty cool. There was one in particular who sticks out in my mind. He was the manager (not that that means anything in the food service business except that one works more hours for not much more pay than the folks (s)he supervises)-a forty year old Black man from Kansas City who had done a little time in prison and a lot of time in the streets. His wit was remarkably cutting at times. Other times it was full of warmth and humanity. The thing I liked best were his stories and his singing. The man was a treasury of tunes, especially old blues and r and b.
We both worked a shift every Friday and Saturday night that kept us in the kitchen from 6 in the evening until 6 the following morning. Fortunately, I had a friend who was a pharmacist’s assistant. She managed to save a couple pills out of every shipment of speed and was more than happy to share them with my co-worker and me. It was after these pills kicked in on these evenings when the songs began to roll. They might include the Coasters “Charlie Brown” to “They all ask for me, The cows ask, the pigs ask, they all ask for me.” I was working with a human jukebox. My favorite of his songs was a blues that the late Big Bill Broonzy wrote called “Black, Brown and White.” When my boss got to singing this song, he had every cracker in the restaurant looking towards the kitchen. It always seemed to me that they were afraid that their just desserts were coming out the kitchen door any minute. It was all just a little speed-fueled fun, but the white folks didn’t know that.
Big Bill Broonzy was born in Mississippi in late June of 1893. Soon afterwards his family moved to Arkansas. He lived the life of a poor black in America’s south. One of seventeen children, he began work in the fields early and was sharecropping by 1915. However, when the drought ruined the harvest a year later, he went off to work in the mines and in 1917 he was called into the Army. When he came back home he was restless and bored. He got a job on the trains and headed to Chicago where he picked up guitar playing. By the 1930s he was making records on small “race record” recording labels. Like so many other folk-blues musicians of his time, it was John Hammond who brought Broonzy to a larger audience. This occurred when he performed at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1939 titled “Spirituals to Swing.” Even with the greater commercial success Big Bill experienced in the wake of his wider audience, he was never wealthy. Like so many other African-Americans of his time, most of the money never reached his pockets.
Although Broonzy and others in his genre were often called to play spirituals, he considered himself a blues musician through and through. When asked why, he would tell a story about a turtle he caught to eat. After his uncle chopped off the turtle’s head, the turtle walked headless back to the stream where Bill had caught it. As Bill told the story, his uncle told him “There’s a turtle who’s dead and don’t know it.” Big Bill would continue: “And that’s the way a lot of people is today: they got the blues and they don’t know it.” According to his autobiography, Big Bill Blues, he first played a fiddle he made out of a cigar box when he was ten. It was after he moved to Chicago and worked as a Pullman porter that he learned guitar.
Much of Big Bill’s repertoire is the standard stuff that blues are made of. You know–women doing him wrong or spending all his money and women spending all his money and then doing him wrong. Other songs in his pocket are full of sexual innuendo and bravado. Still others are a variation of the blues lament. My favorite from this group has a verse that goes like this: “The men in the mine baby/They all lookin’ down at me/Gal I’m down so low baby/I’m low as I can be/Yeah now baby/Girl I’m down as I can be/Gal I’m down so low baby/Ooh Lord everybody’s lookin’ down on poor me.” All of this, of course, sung to the melodic guitar play backed up with a percussive thumb stroke on those lower strings.
Broonzy’s songs weren’t all women, whiskey and personally caused hard luck, though. Some of his best songs dealt with tragedy and injustice. These excerpts from his 1937 “Southern Flood Blues” evoke a fear and sense of loss that every person who’s been the victim of natural disaster can feel to their bones:
I was hollerin’ for mercy, and it weren’t no boats around
Hey I was hollerin’ for mercy, and it weren’t no boats around
Hey that looks like people, I’ve gotta stay right here and drown
Hey my house started shakin’, started floatin’ on down the stream
Hey my house started shakin’, went on floatin’ on down the stream
It was dark as midnight, people began to holler and scream
Listen to this piece and you’re on the roof of your house going down a river whose rage is relentless-a rage with little hope of being soothed. This same sense of rage seethes just underneath the surface of my two favorite Broonzy songs, barely keeping the volcanic ash of his anger from raining down on the listener: “I Wonder When I’ll Get To Be Called A Man,” and “Black, Brown And White.” These are songs about the most despairing blues of all. Those are the blues that don’t have to be. Blues that exist not because of a misunderstanding in love or a poor crop or even a terrible flood, but because of ignorance and fear and the hatred that combination spawns.
The first song asks the question at the end of every verse: “I wonder when I’ll get to be a man?” Big Bill asks the listener (and the system that keeps his people down) what does it take? He’s been in the man’s military and fought for them overseas, he’s worked on the levee and chopped down their trees. He’s played all their games and he’s gone to school. “When,” he wonders. “when will I get to be called a man/Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?” The second song, “Black, Brown and White,” was the song my co-worker used to sing. Like “I Wonder When I’ll Get to Be Called a Man,” the song is a litany of injustices done to African-Americans in the US solely because they aren’t white. From the verse about a bar where he was refused service to the verse about his trouble finding a job, this song leaves no doubt about how the system sees him. The title’s reference to brown is a not-so-subtle dig at the gradations of prejudice based on how dark one actually is. In other words, the darker one’s skin is, the less chances this country provides. I think Big Bill sums it up in the final verse and chorus:
I hope when sweet victory
With my plough and hoe
Now I want you to tell me brother
What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?
Now if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back.
These aren’t sentiments of submission. They are insightful and acerbic criticisms of the society in which Big Bill lived. It is a society in which these criticisms are truer than they should be at this juncture in our history.