Donald Bogle is well known for his exhaustive research and meticulous detailing. Heat Wave is no exception. Things get off to a slow start as he explains the background behind what begins to seem like every person Ethel Waters ever met or could meet. Once he gets rolling, however, he offers a comprehensive look at this pioneering artist that is refreshingly free of rose colored glasses. Perhaps it’s fitting that Waters, certainly not an easy woman, is so well documented in what is not an easy book. Heat Wave is worth the time, and it will reward the reader willing to explore not just Ethel Waters but the world she lived in. Ethel has largely been forgotten, but Bogle respects both her place in history and her absolute talent. Here she is in a clip from a film intended for black audiences only, with a very young Sammy Davis Jr as the President. I chose this clip because it illustrates the difference in the artist when she is not beholden to please a white ticket buyer. Instead of the cotton picker of her 1929 recording of this song, an elegant woman takes the stage before expounding on the power of Harlem life and completely refuting cotton as a profession.
Blue Smoke has a different aim. Rather than a comprehensive exploration of the times and people that made the artist, Roger House uses the art to explore the man. Taking Broonzy’s discography to tell the story of his life, House quote his lyrics before expanding on the times in which he wrote them. It makes for an instantly accessible and compelling read. House writes as economically as Broonzy sang.
Unlike Ethel Waters, Bill Broonzy did not find his fortune with his guitar. It certainly led him to many experiences he would not otherwise have had, but it never allowed him to fully leave manual labor behind. as with other artists of the time his interaction with the Lomax family both gained him a wider audience and a minstrel version of himself to perform for the white blues enthusiasts. House details his work bringing other musicians to be interviewed by Alan Lomax, stressing that we have to view those tapes through the lens of Lomax’s own bias. Broonzy knew what Lomax was looking for and he delivered it. We can’t therefore take those words as a full and accurate representation of Bill Broonzy himself. In the music House finds a fuller picture of the man and through that man the era in which he worked. LSU Press has great pricing on Blue Smoke, both in paperback and ebook. I think it is definitely worth your time. Since it’s only fair, let me follow that look at Ethel Waters with a look at Big Bill Broonzy, a guitarist that should be familiar to everyone. The effects of his popularity in Europe are certainly seen in the work of the European musicians that followed.