The Association for Recorded Sound Collections selected this book as a finalist for its 2011 Award for Excellence in Historical Sound Research in the blues/gospel/hip-hop/R&B.

The Association for Recorded Sound Collections was founded in 1961 to preserve and promote the value of recorded sound archives.

The songs and stories of the blues singer William "Big Bill" Broonzy (1893–1958) chronicle many aspects of black urban folklife in modern America. Raised on Mississippi and Arkansas cotton plantations, Broonzy was positioned to take up the life of a sharecropper, the lot of many rural blacks after Reconstruction. This way of life, however, was about to undergo radical change as the farmworkers of Broonzy's generation were caught up in the economic and social transformation of the industrializing South.

Broonzy was drafted into the army during the First World War and shipped to France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. He returned to Arkansas with a different outlook on life's possibilities, seeing little opportunity in working as a field hand as farmwork became increasingly mechanized. Broonzy joined the trek of sharecroppers to the smokestack cities of the North—in his case, Chicago. Over time, he adjusted to urban life as a laborer and part-time musician, gaining a reputation as a blues singer who articulated the new outlook of the black working class. Broonzy later had the opportunity to introduce the blues of the black urban folk to white youths in the United States and Europe.

This book presents Bill Broonzy as both an important blues artist and an archetype of the working-class black man. It places what was known about his life in the context of the transformation of African American life that took place over a seventy-year period of economic and social change that constituted an "Age of Blues." The lack of information about Broonzy's life has made telling his story a challenge—much of what is known about him came from Broonzy himself. A key source of my information was his often frustratingly whimsical autobiography, Big Bill Blues. Other sources included press reports, written accounts, oral testimony, films, and photographs. Constructing Broonzy's story required peering through the haze of facts, statements, pictures, and songs to construct a larger mosaic of his life. I chose the title Blue Smoke to emphasize the challenge of telling the obscure story of an urban migrant. Yet, despite the gaps in the account, the portrait Broonzy rendered of his life and times provides one of the more substantial bodies of information left behind by a prewar blues singer.

Most of all, I sifted through the oral/aural statements captured on Broonzy's voluminous body of recorded music. Between 1927 and 1957, he released 997 sides of songs, stories, and music. In these works, Broonzy introduced social topics with a cast of characters from the world of ordinary folk. He spoke about sharecroppers, mule drivers, train conductors, prostitutes, barmen, policemen, shopkeepers, soldiers, and lovers in the changing locales of the plantations, towns, railroads, and ghettos. His recordings explored the themes of farming, poverty, unemployment, migration, gambling, drinking, and dancing. As a result, his recordings constituted a valuable resource for recovering the lost voice of an observer of a generation. My approach to Broonzy's blues songs follows that of the cultural historian Angela Davis, who argues that blues lyrics and themes "constitute a patchwork social history of black Americans during the decades following emancipation."

My interest in Broonzy dates from the time I was studying the social effects of the Great Depression on ordinary people. I wanted to learn about the qualitative responses of black sharecroppers and urban migrants to the economic crisis. Influenced by Lawrence Levine's use of black oral culture in exploring the consciousness of the folk, I hoped to use recorded blues music to uncover sentiments that revealed critical thought. My research began in the blues collections of Boston-area libraries. One day, as I combed through the record bins of the Cambridge Public Library, I stumbled upon Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs, an old Folkways album with a cover photo depicting a thoughtful, middle-aged man. The photo—so different from those used on most blues albums—attracted my attention. I took the album home to see what this earnest-looking man had to say. Impressed by the confident voice and ragtime guitar picking, I decided to look further into the career of Big Bill.

Copyright © 2008 LSU Press.