Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
In the end, it was Win Stracke who made the arrangements. In the weeks before he died, Big Bill Broonzy had pleaded with his wife Rose to let him stay home instead of returning to the hospital. But when Win arrived at the apartment after getting the phone call at 3 a.m. that Bill was failing, he decided that it would be too difficult for the family members gathered at the bedside to witness the final painful moments, and he called the ambulance. He also made sure that a room was waiting at Billings Hospital on the University of Chicago campus, only two miles away. But by the time Bill arrived there in the early hours of Friday, August 15, 1958, he had already passed.
There was, of course, a lot more to do once Bill was dead: coordinating the memorial service, selecting the location of the grave at the cemetery, and raising the money so these events could take place. The life insurance payout from the Local 208 black musicians’ union wouldn’t be enough by itself to cover the funeral, although the $500 that Win collected from friends and admirers over the weekend would help close the gap.
Win had known Bill for a dozen years, since 1946. Win’s broad face and deep, warm, bass voice were familiar to Chicago television audiences from his appearances as a working-class singer of operatic arias and folk ballads on Studs Terkel’s popular show Studs’ Place and as the genial host of the children’s program Animal Playtime. Bill and Win had traveled together through the Midwest in a folk song revue called “I Come for to Sing,” playing Big Ten college campuses and Chicago nightclubs. It was Win who had launched Bill on the European tours that made him an internationally known name. When Win fulfilled his longtime dream by opening a folk music school in Chicago in December 1957, Bill performed at the opening-night concert, strumming as the school’s first teacher diagrammed his technique on the blackboard for the first class. Bill had trusted Win enough to name him as the executor of his estate.
Win wanted to make sure that Bill would be honored in ways that underscored his importance to his various constituencies. He started by arranging for several musicians to perform at the funeral at the Metropolitan Funeral Parlors, located at Forty-fifth and South Parkway, two blocks from Bill and Rose’s apartment. There was no shortage of talent at the service, with offerings from gospel star Mahalia Jackson, who had performed overseas with Bill in 1952; her informally adopted son, Brother John Sellers, who had appeared with Bill during his last tour of England in 1957; and Studs Terkel, whose connection with Bill went back to the earliest “I Come for to Sing” shows in the late 1940s. Win himself picked up his guitar and sang for the several hundred mourners as well, choosing the recently written but seemingly ageless folk song “Passing Through,” whose chorus stressed that “We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through.”
But the leads in the next day’s newspapers told of something unusual and probably unprecedented: “Big Bill Broonzy sang at his own funeral,” wrote the reporters for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times.
It was indeed Bill, recorded barely a year earlier during his final recording session, before a doctor’s scalpel had nicked his vocal cords during surgery on what turned out to be the lung cancer that killed him. He sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in a slow tempo, stretching out the words, strumming almost to himself, as if the guitar were an organic part of him and the playing was like inhaling as he gathered his strength for the next phrase. The effect, not surprisingly, was powerful, bringing many of those in attendance to tears. As they cried, they could see Bill in an open casket surrounded by an impressive array of flowers that featured a huge arrangement in the shape of a guitar.
After the service, at the cemetery, two more of Win’s ideas combined to leave a lasting imprint. He had written to a friend that “the pallbearers will be four white and four colored singers,” and that he had hired a professional photographer. So Mickey Pallas, whose photos had appeared in Ebony and Sepia, was there to document Bill’s final journey. One of Pallas’s images of Bill’s casket, borne by the pallbearers, succeeded in capturing the image that Win had worked hard to create.
At the head of the procession, white handkerchief in breast pocket, eyes downcast, his face a somber mask, walked Muddy Waters. Not long after Muddy had arrived in Chicago in the mid-1940s, Bill had reached out to him, and Muddy always spoke of Bill with admiration, affection, and respect. To Muddy’s left was Brother John Sellers, and in sequence behind him was a trio of Chicago blues musicians: Tampa Red, who, along with Bill, ruled the Chicago blues world of the 1930s and ‘40s; Otis Spann, Muddy’s gifted piano player, his eyes fixed on the ground; and pianist Sunnyland Slim, whose most visible feature was the balding top of his bowed head as he brought up the rear. “Little Walter” Jacobs would have been included among the pallbearers if the harmonica star had not been shot in the leg earlier that year.
On the opposite side of the casket were Win, Studs, bassist Ransom Knowling, and Chet Roble, a cabaret piano player who had joined the “I Come for to Sing” revue in the early 1950s. Roble was glancing to one side, Studs was staring down even harder than Spann, and Win—a big man, tall and broad-shouldered—looked ahead to the approaching grave site. Bill might have wasted away to less than a hundred pounds by the time he died, but these were men bearing a load that weighed on them, no matter how light the casket.
What the picture showed was what Win had likely intended, and then some. Certainly there was the image of blacks and whites united in common cause—as Win had sung earlier, we’re all brothers. It was not a trivial public statement less than a year after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus confronted federal troops sent to Little Rock by President Eisenhower to enforce school integration. In fact, eight years after Bill’s funeral, white crowds cursed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he marched in the streets of Chicago for an end to unfair housing practices. The pallbearers were also brought together by their shared professional commitment to music with a link to Bill. Each made his living in some part by performing and recording blues and folk music. In addition, it was a picture of Chicago in 1958, a vibrant and dynamic center of music made largely by people who had been born someplace else. Waters, Sellers, Sunnyland, Knowling, and Spann all came originally from Mississippi, Tampa Red from Georgia, Terkel from New York, and Stracke from Kansas.
The photo showed Muddy assuming the role of a leader of the Chicago blues community, even though both Tampa and Sunnyland were older. While other blues musicians had a more direct musical influence on Muddy, he always talked about Bill as someone who demonstrated how to act when you’ve had some success, how to carry yourself—how to be a man. By 1958 Muddy’s band had been among the most dominant in a fiercely competitive city for nearly a decade. Although the personnel had changed over time, Muddy’s vision, talent, and determination had driven its success. If there was a rite of passage, a ceremony where Muddy claimed the status he had earned, it was this event. The passing of a giant like Bill, and its effect on Muddy, was visible in his solemn expression and dignified posture.
There were other people who had played meaningful roles in Bill’s life who were not in Chicago on that hot August day to hear Bill’s voice and to watch as his friends laid his body down. Broadcaster and musician Alexis Korner, whose radio commentaries and liner notes brought his passion for Bill’s music to a growing audience of British blues fans, was in London, where he had helped organize a benefit concert for Bill five months earlier. Yannick and Margo Bruynoghe were in Brussels, where they had welcomed Bill into their home and had arranged for Bill to star in an award-winning short film. Jazz writer Hugues Panassié was in France, where he had introduced Bill to European audiences in 1951. And Pete Seeger, who had played with Bill at college concerts and hootenannies since the 1940s, was somewhere on the road.
These individuals were among the numerous friends Bill had made since he started playing for white audiences, mostly after World War II, in New York and Chicago and Europe. They and others had helped him present to the world the stories in which he entwined his own life with the history of the blues and the black experience in America. They had arranged for Bill’s concerts on stages in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Milan; recorded his songs in Paris and Amsterdam; and edited his autobiography, which had been published in four countries and two languages. And then there were his missing colleagues from the early days of the blues world who had died, whose names he had called out in the final recording session a year before: Leroy Carr, Big Maceo Merriweather, Jim Jackson—men who had played for whiskey at rent parties and recorded their songs on 78 rpm discs sold as “race records.”
Win’s plans had truly honored him, and the Big Bill Broonzy buried in the hot sun on August 19, 1958, at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois, was a significant and internationally acclaimed figure: author, singer, guitarist, songwriter, a black man who spoke and sang about racism, a man of admirable character. Only the family members who were gathered there knew that the man they buried that day was not born with that name, and that his story was different from the one he had told his friends and fans. Big Bill Broonzy was a tremendous storyteller, and his greatest invention may have been himself.
Chapter One from I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy by Bob Riesman, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2011 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)