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!
I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History and I’m astonished by how much I didn’t know about that era of American history. One example: a Gallup Poll from early 1939 revealed that 84-85% of American protestants and Catholics “opposed offering sanctuary to European refugees. So did more than one-quarter of American Jews.” This was after the well-reported “Night of Broken Glass” in November of 1938 when Hitler’s goons ransacked Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues through Germany and Austria, killing dozens of Jews and imprisoning thousands more.
I knew that Americans had become isolationist in the wake of World War I, but I had assumed that the so-called Greatest Generation had risen to the occasion when faced with the atrocities of the Nazis. Not so much. It’s shocking to see photos of young American protesters marching with “Make peace with Hitler” signs. FDR reinstated conscription and on October 16, 1940, American men had to register for the draft, and most Americans were not happy about it. Before I watched this episode I had assumed it was just lefty radicals like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who opposed the war. Their band the Almanac Singers recorded one of my favorite protest songs, “Ballad Of October 16th.”
The Almanac Singers - Ballad Of October 16th
Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damn near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe ’til everybody’s dead.”