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Mule, Get Up In The Alley
(a Tribute to the Mule in the Blues)
Max Haymes

Plow Hand Blues & Big Bill

It is my considered opinion that Big Bill Broonzy or William Lee Bradley, to give him his real name, (1) rarely if ever was a plough hand.   Two new facts emerge early on in author Bob Riesman’s ground-breaking book.  “The Bradley family lived in the rural areas of Jefferson County [in Arkansas] outside Pine Bluff from the 1880s into the 1920s.” (2)  Just prior to Bill’s actual birthdate of 1903, his father Frank Bradley “did not have much to his name-in fact he had less than any of his black neighbors. The tax rolls for Vaugine Township for 1900 show that he owned no horses, sheep, cattle, hogs, or mules.” (3)  Frank was a landless sharecropper.  He didn’t have an animal to even haul a plough!  Furthermore, “Because he also didn’t own any gold or silver watches, or’ Pianofortes’, or carriages, bicycles, or  ‘Wagons of whatever kind,’ the taxing authority determined that his total taxable property amounted to $10.  This was the standard minimum in Vaugine Township for black sharecroppers, as those who owned a horse, or mule or two, and a watch were assessed as if they were worth $90 or even $120.  On March 25, 1901, Frank paid a total of 17 cents to the township”. (4)  And by the age of 7 (1910) Bill was no longer part of a farming environment; “by the 1910 census he [Bill’s father] had moved both geographically and occupationally…a few miles over to Plum Bayou township.” (5)  Still in Jefferson County, Arkansas, but now Frank Bradley was listed “as a ‘porter’ in the ‘General Store’ .”. (6)  Although “Bill never described his father as anything other than a farmer” (7) [Footnote 1: Quite a common occurrence when a black man was working outside of agriculture  to be listed in a census, as a ‘farmer’.  Due to the lack of interest toward the black community or ignorance of a middle-class government official .(the census-taker) Even the legendary Charley Patton was listed on  his Death Certificate as ‘a farmer’. Yet his niece Bessie Turner, claimed much later that her famous uncle “…didn’t farm or nothing like that, because he’d be going all the time.   See, he made his money…He never did no other kind of work.” (9)  Tom Cannon concurred: “He always wore a suit every  day of his life.” .(10)  In much the same way that Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, and Victoria Spivey; for example.]  In any event “Bill arrived at the Twelfth Street Station [Chicago] in the early 1920s…”(8) still in his teens.  If he did indeed spend sometime behind a plough it seems most likely to have happened in the decade prior to his migration to Chicago.  Somewhere say between 1910 and 1920. 

Maybe by his early teens he had been shown how to operate a plough as no doubt many black children had in this era.  In much the same way as a Georgia resident Lucius Robinson who told his interviewer: “My daddy had a big old red mule he plowed, and he’d make cotton like I don’t know what…[he] had jobs for us.  When we were small, he kept hogs, cows and things and they were roving, we didn’t have no pastures.  We had to see after them cows and hogs.  Had to water them down at the spring.  We were so little we couldn’t hardly get on a mule, but we’d get on some way and ride anyway.”. (11)  But one thing is absolutely obvious, Big Bill did not spend around 75% of his life behind a plough, as he claimed on his Plow Hand Blues.

  Plow hand have bin my name, for forty years or more;
Ooh! Lord. Plow hand have bin my name, for forty years or more.
Lord, I did all I could-ooh! Lord - tryin’ to take care of my so-an’-so.

Interestingly, Big Bill may well have come across a song collected by Joel Chandler Harris of Brer Rabbit fame, in his tome in the section called Uncle Remus His Songs And His Sayings.  One of the songs included seems to be a precursor of Plow Hand Blues.  Called The Plough-Hands Song [sic] which is dated back to 1860 down in Jasper County, Georgia.

  One en all on us knows who’s a pullin at de bits
 Like de lead-mule dat  g’ides by de rein,
En yit, somehow er udder, de bestest un us gits
Mighty sick er de tuggin’ at de chain.

In any event, once Bill got to Chicago there would be little chance of ploughing as there are precious  few fields on State Street!  Once he started making records in 1927, and certainly into the 1930s, his income-augmented of course by live performances or gigs-would minimize any need to supplement his earnings by taking a part-time job such as a janitor, for example.  As late as 1940, Bill’s blues were selling relatively well.  As Riesman states “…even without full information about the accounting, what is clear is that some of Bill’s records were selling thousands of copies per month”. (14)  These included “‘Plow Hand Blues’/ ‘Lookin’ For My Baby’ (4,232 copies)”. (15)  In the period from 1st. April to the end of June; along with “ ‘Leap Year Blues’/’Make My Getaway’ (4,445 copies)”. (16

But of course it didn’t really matter if Big Bill had been a plough hand or not.  When he sang his Plow Hand Blues he knew it would hit a whole lot of his mainly working-class black audience who had only moved from the South up to Chicago comparatively recently.

Copyright Ó Max Haymes 2012


Appendix I
- Plow Hand Blues & Big Bill
Appendix II
- A Mule called Jerry
Appendix III
- Sukey jump/Soo cow
Appendix IV
- Bango



1. See Feel So Good  
2. Riesman B. Ibid. p.8.
3. Ibid. p.9.
4. Ibid. p.p.9-10.
5. Ibid. p.15.
6. Ibid.  
7. Ibid.  
8. Ibid. p.44.
9. Evans D. p.148. (Voice of The Delta)
10. Ibid. p.150 (Addendum 1987)
11. Mitchell G. (Ed.) Unpaginated. Lucius Robinson interview (In Celebration of a Legacy(The Traditional Arts Of The Lower Chattahoochee Valley)
12. ‘Plow Hand Blues’

Big Bill vo. gtr.; Joshua Altheimer pno.; Fred Williams dms.

13. Harris J.C. p.188.
14. Reisman Ibid. p.p.106-107.
15. Ibid. p.107.
16. Ibid.  

Additions/Corrections & Transcriptions by Max Haymes.
Website conversion of original transcript by Alan White.


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