The blues and the whites

Watching a fine documentary about the blues guitarist Bill Broonzy on BBC4, I realised for the the first time how political he was.

Two examples. Invited to play in the Spirituals to Swing concert at the Carnegie Hall in 1938 with jazz and blues luminaries such as Count Basie, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Sonny Terry, he sang a version of “Just a dream” in which he imagined, in front of a well-heeled largely white audience, of being invited to the White House to meet the President. At a time when much of the US was still segregationist, this was incendiary stuff, in the same way that ‘Only in America’ was flammable 30 years later. But he saved himself from lynching by the construction: it was ‘just a dream’.

Broonzy served in the US Army in World War I but like other black soldiers who served (in both wars) he returned to the US to find that nothing had changed, that America was as racist as ever. His response was to write “When will I be called a man”:

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three
I wonder when,
I wonder when,
I wonder when will I get to be called a man

To a whole people used to being routinely addressed as “boy” throughout their adult life, the meaning would have been obvious. As indeed it was when Dylan wrote that innocuous-sounding line – innocuous, at least, to British ears – about “How many roads must a man walk down before they’ll call him a man”, 40 years later.

Given how well schooled Dylan was in the history of American folk and country blues, it seems unlikely that he didn’t know he was quoting from Broonzy. I’m not the first person to make this connection. And as I’ve mentioned here before, “Blowing in the wind” ended up being an inspiration for Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which in turn opened the way for a whole generation of black political music during the 60s and 70s. Culture’s always flowing, finding a way to make its own connections.



  1. Nice one, Andy – I have an album of Big Bill’s that I arrived at via Muddy Waters Plays Big Bill: both of them would have become unplayable by now as LPs. ‘I had ten children and they all looked like me’ is one of my favourite lines. Also I found out what the lyric actually meant: ‘I played policy…’ is a reference to a an illegal lottery!



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