What do you get when you take one of the foremost oral historians of the 20th century, and sit him down with one of the most beloved blues musicians of all time? The legendary interviews of Studs Terkel and Big Bill Broonzy, which took place over a period of several years, between 1954 and 1957.
Luckily for us, some of these were captured for the sake of posterity at the WFMT radio studios (where Studs hosted a daily radio show for almost half a century), finding eventual issue on the Folkways Record label. A box set of his last recording sessions, “The Big Bill Broonzy Story,” also featured music and additional dialogue between these two iconic figures, and fast friends.
As for Studs, he always seems to ever so gently guide the proceedings, while clearly taking delight in what transpires. Although he never appears to be intrusive, he does occasionally stop to ask a question, if it seems that some minor point needs clarifying. As for Big Bill, he seems most intent on telling his story — his truth, as it were — so that the events and details of his life could be shared and remembered.
So that we could know, firsthand, what it was like to be a blues musician or a railroad porter, a short order cook or a plowhand, a janitor or a dishwasher, or to work on a levee camp — in other words, too many to count. But as Big Bill later reveals, to have the blues, you had to have lived that life. And in turn, everything that Big Bill was or ever did, became the very fuel and fodder for the hundreds of blues songs he wrote and sang over the decades.
Although it’s hard to know exactly how to describe what you’re about to hear over the next couple of programs, suffice it to say that we find two men — each of whom has great respect and admiration for the other — engaged in a fascinating and compelling dialogue. One that is coupled with an underlying and ever so faint sense of urgency. To try and get the story out before it’s too late.
The week after Big Bill’s last recording sessions, in July 1957, he underwent surgery for lung cancer. He’d had a rather worrying hunch about it, one that he confided to Studs. He told him he was afraid they were going to cut his vocal cords. Studs tried to reassure him, saying it wasn’t his throat they were after, it was the lung. “But the knife….” he told Studs. But the knife….
Big Bill Broonzy passed away one rainy and stormy August morning in Chicago, in 1958. As Studs later put it, it was just one more storm this Big Man was passing through.
After interviewing thousands of people around the world and authoring countless books, Studs Terkel passed away at the age of 96, in October 2008. And while it’s hard to grasp the enormity of his lifetime of achievement — being, as it were, the ears to the world — there remains something extraordinarily special about those times that two old friends, Studs and Big Bill, sat down in front of a microphone and talked about the blues. One of them had a guitar in his hands. The other kept an eye on the ever-revolving spool of audio tape. And what transpired between them, it’s fairly safe to say, will live on in the hearts and minds of blues fans for all time.