"Just a dream": community, identity, and the blues of Big Bill Broonzy

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kevin D. Greene (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Benjamin Filene

Abstract: This dissertation investigates the development of African American identity and blues culture in the United States and Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s through an examination of the life of one of the blues' greatest artists. Across his career, Big Bill Broonzy negotiated identities and formed communities through exchanges with and among his African American, white American, and European audiences. Each respective group held its own ideas about what the blues, its performers, and the communities they built meant to American and European culture. This study argues that Broonzy negotiated a successful and lengthy career by navigating each groups' cultural expectations through a process that continually transformed his musical and professional identity. Chapter 1 traces Broonzy's negotiation of black Chicago. It explores how he created his new identity and contributed to the flowering of Chicago's blues community by navigating the emerging racial, social, and economic terrain of the city. Chapter 2 considers Broonzy's music career from the early twentieth century to the early 1950s and argues that his evolution as a musician--his lifelong transition from country fiddler to solo male blues artist to black pop artist to American folk revivalist and European jazz hero--provides a fascinating lens through which to view how twentieth century African American artists faced opportunities--and pressures--to reshape their identities. Chapter 3 extends this examination of Broonzy's career from 1951 until his death in 1957, a period in which he achieved newfound fame among folklorists in the United States and jazz and blues aficionados in Europe. Together, chapters 2 and 3 argue that across three decades Broonzy navigated the music industry in the United States and Europe by cannily creating identities that suited the expectations of individuals who could help sustain his career. Finally, Chapter 4 examines how Broonzy's story has been shaped and reshaped in collective historical memory. It argues that his successful cultivation of white and European folk and jazz enthusiasts toward the end of his career contributed to a historical picture of Broonzy that masks the importance of his identity as a black artist for black audiences. Big Bill Broonzy and the African American blues musicians of his generation made their lives in a period of tremendous flux--from the Great Migrations through the emergence of the Civil Rights era. Exploring how Broonzy navigated the shifting parameters of this world illuminates the shifting contours of race, class, and politics in the twentieth century and shows how African Americans forged cultural identities and communities within and around these constraints. These identities and communities, moreover, redefined how the United States and the world would understand African American music and reshaped twentieth century cultural history.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2011
African American music, Alan Lomax, Broonzy, Big Bill, The Blues
African Americans $v Music
Broonzy, Big Bill, $d 1893-1958
Blues (Music)
Blues musicians $x History $y 20th century
African American musicians

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