Big Bill Broonzy – Good Time Tonight

There was a time when I kept my blues records separate from the others. Well, I still separate some records — classical, comedy, some soundtracks, spoken word — those are all shunted off to the end of the shelves. I think my justification for separating the blues into its own section was twofold: I didn’t have a lot of blues records, and sometimes when I wanted to hear the blues, that was all I wanted to hear. It made sense to just keep everything together. But as my collection grew, that kinda stopped making sense. What was blues, anyway? Was Ray Charles blues? Was I also separating rhythm ’n’ blues, or soul? And if I wanted to subdivide by category that way, figuring out who was in what category would be exhausting, and require a commitment. I had well over 1000 records at one point — a small collection in comparison to many, but big enough to be an organizational nightmare. So, the blues were welcomed back into the fold.

Good Time Tonight – some serious blues
Good Time Tonight – some serious blues

Some blues artists also present some problems with alphabetization — we’ll get to how I chose to deal with Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson later. Fortunately, Big Bill Broonzy doesn’t pose much of a challenge, because any of the three options land him in the B section.

Big Bill Broonzy is one of the all-time blues greats, born to the southern blues traditions. His place of birth? Arkansas or Mississippi. Date of birth? 1893, or maybe 1903. He was one of seventeen children, and the story goes that at the age of 10 he made a cigar box fiddle, started playing and performing. He served in World War I and on returning moved to Chicago, picked up the guitar, and went to work becoming a legend. He copyrighted more than 300 songs in his lifetime, recorded hundreds, and was hugely influential in the sound of the Chicago blues. He died on August 14 or 15, 1958 (a bit of a mystery to the end), of throat cancer.

This is a great collection of Broonzy’s songs, nearly all from the 1930s, and what songs they are. This is the real blues, with a little sexy sass to it (like “I Want My Hands On It” and “Horny Frog”). This is the country blues (“Going Back to Arkansas” and “Too Too Train Blues”). This is progressive blues (“W.P.A. Rag” and “Flat Foot Susie With Her Flat Yes Yes”). You’ve gotta hear this.

Here’s “I Want My Hands On It” — it swings.

There’s a great film of Broonzy playing three songs just the year before he died — filmed by Pete Seeger on a 16mm newsreel camera:

This Roots N’ Blues compilation came out in 1990 — late for new vinyl for me. I had moved to Albany by then, and was pretty much exclusively buying music on CD. There were still record stores, of course. There was Just A Song, but I don’t really ever remember going in there. I must have, but it doesn’t register. There was a place called World’s Record, but I don’t think they dealt new. There was another store that also had a location in Troy, I cannot remember its name. But it’s most likely that I picked this up at Records ’n’ Such. Records ’n’ Such was a well-regarded local chain with four stores in the Albany area. I think its flagship store was the one in Stuyvesant Plaza, and it was a pretty good store with a strong catalog and moderately reasonable pricing. When I moved back to Albany, it had a diverse stock, and even had a separate listening room for classical. I bought a lot — a lot — of CDs there. Sadly, in 1994 the owners sold it off to TransWorld, which owned the Albany-based RecordTown chain (the absolute highest priced of the chains, for zero apparent reason) and was busy changing to the FYE brand. They turned the Stuyvesant Plaza store into a Coconuts. Why that name? Never knew.

What is it that made one record store different from another? Even as a chain (albeit a small one), Records ‘n’ Such had a certain quality that was gone not long after it became a Coconuts. Records are records, but the look of the store, the people who work there . . . it all makes a difference.

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