Big Bill Broonzy was a legend of the blues from the 1920s, through the folk revival of the fifties. He was the mentor of Muddy Waters and an advocate for the younger generation of blues musicians including John Lee Hooker. He toured Europe throughout the 1950s where he convinced them that he was the last living bluesman. After his death in 1958 his music continued to inspire the early British rock scene via the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and Eric Clapton, who all cited Broonzy as a key influence.
But I had never really gotten into him. That is, until last summer when I dropped my nine year old off for summer camp and saw the following photo framed on the wall in the old farmhouse that serves as the main headquarters of Circle Pines Center:
Next to the photo there’s a handwritten note from Pete Seeger.
Dear Circle Pines--
I’m so glad you are still going strong. I’ll never forget my visit with you in ’57. Big Bill Broonzy was there. He said, “Pete, you better film me now. I’m going under the knife tomorrow.” He never sang again.
Keep on — all of you
Aug 1 ’98
I knew that Circle Pines had a long history of progressive activism, but I didn’t know anything about Big Bill Broonzy and Pete Seeger hanging out there!
I’ve since done a little research, and the story gets even better. Broonzy actually worked at Circle Pines as a cook in 1954! Cooler still, it was Chicago’s Pulitzer Prize winning oral historian Studs Terkel who hooked Broonzy up with the job!
Broonzy biographer Bob Riesman writes:
In June 1954 Bill was hired for a job that was unlike any other he had ever held in his long and varied employment career. For the duration of the summer, he was the assistant cook at a summer camp in western Michigan. By all accounts, he was not a conventional assistant cook, but Circle Pines Center was not a conventional summer camp. It had been founded in 1938 as a cooperative, and its members drew their values and principles from a variety of different traditions, ranging from labor union activism to Quaker work camps and Danish folk schools. […]
The connections through which Bill found work at Circle Pines ran through Studs Terkel. As one Circle Piner recalled, “Everyone we knew, knew Studs.” […] Once camp was under way, Bill immediately found himself much in demand as a performer. Like Lead Belly, he was comfortable playing for children, and the campers were soon calling out requests for “John Henry” and “St. Louis Blues.” During the summer, Bill developed a catchphrase that found its way into several end-of-camp write-ups and was preserved on a tape of a Chicago house concert for Circle Piners held the following month. His “Ahhh--shaddup!”--which he exclaimed with mock exasperation and which was received with glee by the campers--reflected his successful adaptation to camp life. One staff member summarized Bill’s tenure that summer by saying that “he wasn’t a terribly good cook, but he was a marvelous musician.”
Broonzy described Circle Pines as “a summer camp in Michigan where all people can go and be treated the same.”
Longtime Circle Pines board member Vera King told the Chicago Reader that Broonzy “would sing all night with the kids and couldn’t get up in the morning. The kitchen manager was furious with him. . . . Apparently he was an alcoholic at the time, but he never drank while he was here, and he never sang any of his off-color songs to the kids.”
Bob Riesman also interviewed King who recalled the experience of the head cook that summer: “Bill drove her crazy. She loved him and adored him like we all did, but he was supposed to help set up breakfast, and he had been up all night singing with the kids and he never could get up in time for breakfast. And I remember her, in her gentle way, cussing him out for that.”
In May 1955, Broonzy played a benefit concert for Circle Pines at the University of Chicago. He returned to Circle Pines for the Fourth of July weekend in 1957 as an artist-in-residence, and he sang with Pete Seeger who filmed him during the same visit. That’s the video above.
As for Seeger’s note, if Broonzy told him he was “going under the knife tomorrow,” he was exaggerating. Broonzy recorded a huge interview project (released as a 5 LP set on Verve in 1961) with Studs Terkel and disc jockey Bill Randle from July 12-14, 1957, and had an operation on his lungs shortly thereafter. But Seeger’s suggestion that “He never sang again” after the surgery is correct; the doctors nipped his vocal cords and Broonzy could no longer speak above a whisper.
But he could still play.
On December 1, 1957, Broonzy opened Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and “gave us a demo of his powerful guitar playing,” according to Frank Hamilton. “Big Bill, black and handsome, could stir a roomful of uptight humans into a bowl of instant throbbing rhythmic jelly.” He taught the throbbing young folkies his way of playing “Glory of Love,” probably the same way he did with the campers at Circle Pines.
His final performance was on March 14, 1958 at Ida Noyes Hall during the intermission of a square dance being held by the University of Chicago Students for Circle Pines. He played “some of his famous blues on the guitar.” First of all, how great is it that there was an organization called “the University of Chicago Students for Circle Pines”? And they threw square dances? With famous bluesmen for intermission music? I went to college in the wrong era!
Big Bill Broonzy died of lung cancer on August 15, 1958. The pallbearers at his funeral included Muddy Waters, Studs Terkel, Tampa Red, Otis Spann, and Win Stracke, the founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Peter Rasmussen was a 15 year old camper at Circle Pines in July 1957 when Broonzy and Seeger visited, and he took the following photos.
Photos by Peter Rasmussen, 1957. Used with permission. See more.
Hear a 1955 Broonzy interview by the great Studs Terkel:
If you find this interesting you should definitely pick up Bob Riesman’s I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. And you should check out Circle Pines, too!