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Acoustic Blues Video Lesson Preview - Key to the Highway by Big Bill Broonzy


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Of course, Big Bill Boonzy is one of the big names in blues and rightly so.

His swinging style laid the groundwork for much of the important Chicago blues scene that followed. People that new him described him as a bit of a story teller, perhaps leaning towards downright fantasy towards the end of his career, which he re-invented as a blues-folk performer, which he never really was – he just played the old songs he gathered in his younger days.

Chicago Blues - Big Bill BroonzyHe didn’t write ‘Key to the Highway’ – there were several version around – but he certainly made it his own. (Black Jack Gingham said that without Bill, there’s no Highway!) Bill moved up to Chicago from the South and honed his swinging finger style guitar playing rapidly, becoming well known and sought after in the live music scene.

He probably started out playing small joints, perhaps solo or with one or two other musicians. At that time is was common for struggling musicians to hold 'rent parties', where folks payed a dollar to enter and listen to the blues - it payed the rent!

There are many recordings of Bill playing with other musicians as his swinging guitar style was great for dancing, and he was also a really good singer with a good range and emotional appeal. In the days before electric guitar, small bands would 'stomp' out there tunes to make themselves heard and Bill's technique was perfect for this. However, his fortunes declines, as does every musician, but in his heyday Bill was a superstar, wearing snappy suits and wowing audiences everywhere.

Delta Blues Man Robert JohnsonIt was during this decline that Broonzy revived his career.

While looking for Robert Johnson to play a concert in New York, the promoter heard that he was dead and Broonzy was asked to step in and played to thousands of people. Bill played a series of acoustic folk type blues and the audience adored it - his new career was born!

He found a new home in the 50s folk boom and started to tour again, visiting Europe for the first time where he was hailed as the real thing. Some old film exists of him playing in Germany, but he also visited UK and other countries.


His appeal was instant and exotic. Being about 6 feet 4, which meant around 6 feet 8 with his hat on, he must have been a striking figure - more like a boxer than a blues singer. He resurrected his old songs for his new young audiences who taste the real blues for the first time. At last Broonzy had the key to the highway. He died in the late fifties of throat cancer - a lifetime of smoking, we can imagine. RIP Bill and thanks for the legacy.

As with many of the master blues men, it's mostly quite easy to work out where they put there finger, which is the first step to learning this music, but the hard part is copying their style. All guitar players have a particular way of holding their hands and fingers which contribute to their sound.

Luckily these techniques tend to be shared by groups of guitar players withing a particular region, but Bill's style was mostly peculiar to him alone. Although he used a monotonic bass, as did many classic blues players, he was very flexible in his approach
and would strum his thumb across the bass strings rather than hit just one.

His playing was very fluid and just moved along with this 'swing' which is incredibly hard to do. He said it was like riding a horse - you can move along at the same speed, but either ride on the front or the back. His thumb beat lagged being the exact timing a little, producing a swing feel - this is what he meant buy riding on the back of the horse. When a journalist asked him 'what are the blues?', he replied - "If you have to ask son, you'll never know ...)