An Evening with William Grealish, the story of Big Bill Broonzy and the Blues

I sat in on a workshop yesterday, as part of the KK Jazz Festival 2010. It was by a musician, about another musician, which touched upon the history of The Blues, America, World Wars, life in Paris and Bristol in the UK.

When I think of “work shop”, I think of learning stuff, especially technical stuff: maybe scales and other exercises or harmonic theory, something like that to improve one’s understanding of the music in one way or another.

William Grealish, of UK’s Mood Indigo, didn’t really give me that in his workshop about Big Bill Broonzy. He gave something very different. He gave a story about a big man in a bigger and more brutal world, trying to make some beauty out of it all. Grealish also showed us respect and affection for this black American blues icon, Respect for his fighting spirit against the social straitjackets of the time. Affection for his humanity, as Grealish shared his personal research about Big Bill, and recounted the many people he met, whose lives had been touched by this blues guitarist and singer.

Grealish has even written a one-man musical play about Big Bill, with barely any props except a characteristic bottle of whisky, a guitar and a table and chair. AND perhaps the only Brit who could ever play Big Bill, Okon Ubanga-Jones. Here’s the trailer clip on youtube.

Grealish weaves his story against a great backdrop of blues guitar, in the theatre at the Sutera Habour Marina, Golf and Country Club. He was blessed with two awesome sidemen – Mark Anderson from England, and our own Roger Wang from Sabah.

Grealish takes us on a journey of slavery and being a “ploughhand” in the cotton fields; woeful songs born of hardship and heartbreak; the solace of christianity in that Hell on earth; and fortifying the soul through the sad beauty of the blues.

Big Bill Broonzy. Photograph by Terry Cryer. http://terrycryer.com

“As long as there’s trouble, there will always be the Blues,” Grealish cites Big Bill as saying.

Big Bill Broonzy’s life, (and he sure was big at 6 feet 7 inches) spanned the late 1890s to the 1950s. He migrated north to leave the life of a Southern labourer, with his single-stringed fiddle — cat gut pulled across a cigar box! — and landed in Chicago, meeting the great Mahalia Jackson, and ultimately writing 120 songs and recording 80, including Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago.

Grealish recounts Big Bill’s life to New York City, and the horrors of WW2. Back in the States, when Big Bill sang “Black, Brown and White Blues”, a civil rights song, the FBI put some pressure on him and Bill left for France, where he met up with luminaries Sydney Bechet and Josephine Baker.

Grealish recalls the many people he has met over the years while doing his research on Big Bill, including activist Peggy Seeger, Humphrey Lyttleton, Sir Paul McCartney. He tenderly maps out Big Bill’s journey, his last six months in Grealish’s Bristol, how he got a lift from Bristol to Southampton, got on a boat to the States, and died shortly after that.

Big Bill Broonzy died August 14, 1958, of throat cancer.

Grealish said George Melly told him Big Bill’s lyrics “In The Evening” made him cry. So, here are those lyrics.

In the evening

In the evening

Mama, when the sun go down

In the evening darling, I declare when the sun go down

Yeah, it’s so lonesome, it’s so lonesome,

I declare when the one you love is not around

When the sun go down

Last night I were layin’ sleepin’, and I declare I was sleepin’ all by myself

Last night I were layin’ sleepin’ darling, and I declare I was sleepin’ all by myself

Yeah, but the one, the one that I was really in love with,

I declare she was sleepin’ someplace else

When the sun go down

Yeah, ooh ooh ooh wee

Yeah, ooh ooh ooh wee

Yes, the one that I was in love with,

I declare she was sleepin’ someplace else

When the sun go down

The sun rises in the east, and I declare it sets way over in the west

Sun rises in the east darling, and I declare it sets way over in the west

Yes, it’s so hard, it’s so hard to tell, I declare which one that’ll treat you the best

When the sun go down

Now goodbye, old sweethearts and pals, yes, I declare I’m goin’ away

I may be back to see you again, little girl some old rainy day

Yes, in the evening in the evening, I declare when the sun go down

When the sun go down

Thank you William Grealish, for sharing your passion with us, here in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

We look forward to hearing more from you and Mood Indigo on Saturday June 19, at the KKJF 2010. Check all festival details HERE.

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