Monday, September 12, 2005:

Big Bill Broonzy

The General
Big Bill Broonzy -- This Train
Big Bill Broonzy -- Going Down the Road
Prompted by an AskMe question about feeling sick after running, I dug out my old running shoes--I'd been jogging before coming to town and for one reason or another it quickly tapered off after I settled in here, shortly after buying a new pair. The shoes are eleven years old and barely used; they fit when I bought them, but last night they were a bit tight--too narrow and too short. Maybe they shrank somehow, or maybe my feet weren't done growing at 19.

I loosened the laces a fair bit and did some stretches and off I went: down a Florida hill, something so small it wouldn't earn the name "hill" in most states, and up the next. A third of a mile later I was stopped at the corner to catch my breath. I can ride my bicycle 15 miles to the next town without getting worn out, but I don't have the same skill with jogging. After about an hour of jogging and walking and jogging and, at the end, quite a lot of walking, I was back home. I slept soundly and, for some reason, dreamed of trains.

Johnny Gray is a character I've always identified with: in over his head, meaning well but not very competent, often succeeding in spite of himself. It's a solid comic concept, used in Inspector Clouseau and Inspector Gadget and any number of Terry Pratchett characters. It's a great film, though Gray's on the wrong side (but, what the hell--I love Das Boot too).

Big Bill Broonzy was a folk/blues/country gospel guitarist and singer. "This Train" is a gospel song about salvation--"This train you don't pay no transportation / There's no Jim Crow and no discrimination / This train is bound for glory, this train / This train don't carry white or black / Everybody ride it is treated just alike." It's a great song, and it's easy to take it as uplifting if you don't consider the history it comes from or the ongoing struggle for fairness and equality.

"Goin' Down This Road" is a song about a man who leaves his woman because he's too proud to eat beans and cornbread; he complains also about his two-dollar shoes ("takes a ten-dollar shoe to fit my feet"). It's surprisingly fun and funny considering the content.

These two tracks are from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation, which has some top-notch recordings with good liner notes, but in a font so small the CD should have come with a free magnifying glass. I'm not sure why they printed them on a folded insert unless they were trying to save on paper, but it was a poor decision to squeeze four columns of text in less than six and a half inches of space.

The tracks were recorded in the late 1950s, towards the very end of Broonzy's career; some of them were studio sessions and the others were in concert with Pete Seeger. It's a far cry from his early days share-cropping and laying tracks for railroads, but in spite of his success abroad, he died nearly broke; his friends were setting up a benefit concert for him when he died of cancer in 1958.

Other personal favorites on the disc include "Bill Bailey," "John Henry," and "The Glory of Love."
[]: Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs

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