This solo performance captures (for posterity) Big Bill’s affable personality and ability to hold the attention of an appreciative audience with his storytelling, acoustic guitar licks, and a strong singing voice that leaves an indelible impression that this man had experiences in the fields, the factories, and the railroads. The 1957 Nottingham setlist largely consists of folk standards including “The Midnight Special,” and “This Train,” on which you can hear a little Elvis Presley swing, as Broonzy’s introduction slyly alludes to some “rockin’ and rollin’” cultural appropriation; we know what came first.
Exhibiting the talent of any great song stylist, Broonzy makes all his own “The Glory of Love,” an often-covered chestnut since the 1930s. In introducing “Trouble in Mind,” Big Bill notes a former roommate, Richard M. Jones, wrote the song. “He was a man,” he laughs, nothing wrong with that. On “What Kind Of Man Jesus Is,” Broonzy harks back to his religious roots. He’s self-deprecating on “In the Evening,” quipping that it killed its composer, another friend. “I hope it doesn’t kill me.” Three months after this concert, Big Bill learned he had lung cancer, to which he succumbed at 65 years old in August 1958.
It’s no wonder American folklorists Alan Lomax, Moe Asch, and Studs Terkel (a pallbearer for Big Bill, as was Waters) picked up on Broonzy’s chameleon knack for absorbing the cultural zeitgeist and influencing others.
As with today’s musicians making due with pennies from Spotify streams, he needed to supplement his live gigs with other labor because he never collected his proper share of recording royalties. “I always worked at all kinds of hard jobs,” Broonzy told an interviewer in 1956. “I was never able to alone rely on my own music ‘til 1953.” We’re all the poorer for that.