Big Bill Broonzy and the truth

On June 25, an NPR piece by David C. Barnett, “Big Bill Broonzy: History’s Musical Chameleon”, about the blues and folk musician who changed his style several times over the years.

Broonzy changed more than his musical style. Throughout his life, the singer also altered parts of his personal history.

One of his most memorable songs was “Black, Brown and White Blues”:

This little song that I’m singing about
People you all know it’s true
If you’re black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you
They says, “If you’re white, you’re all right
If you’re brown, stick around
But if you’re black, oh brother,
Get back, get back get back”

But on his life story:

During a lengthy recording session in 1957 [Broonzy died in 1958], he told some compelling stories about his childhood in rural Mississippi and about the songs he learned from his parents, who he said were slaves. But [Bob] Riesman [author of I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, which traces the musician’s path from the rural South to the South Side of Chicago] says the singer didn’t really come from Mississippi, his parents were not slaves and his name wasn’t Broonzy.

“It turned out that he was Lee Bradley of Jefferson County, Ark., about 60 miles southeast of Little Rock,” Riesman says.

After 10 years of research, Riesman says he’s come to reconcile the facts of Broonzy’s life with the stories the musician told.

“He treated his life story as a set of fluid possibilities, as opposed to fixed events,” Riesman says. “And his imaginative powers were formidable. As [Broonzy exponent]  Studs Terkel said, ‘Bill is telling the truth — his truth.’ “

Terkel is distinguishing here between everyday notions of truth — according to which Broonzy’s story of his life is a lie, a fabrication — and an artist’s notion of truth, which allows for the shaping of events to make a better story: fictobiography on a large scale. We judge fictobiography as art, not as testimony. (Of course, the trick is to figure out when which kind of judgment is appropriate.)

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