This is an interesting book, and not what I'd expected it to be. I've been meaning to say a bit more about this book for a while, but have not until now had the chance.
Blue Smoke: The recorded Journey Of Big Bill Broonzy is a biography of Big Bill Broonzy, but it is not a deep critical biography based on original research, nor is it, as one might be led to believe by the subtitle, a critical look at the whole of Broonzy's recordings. Roger House, in his note to Slack, says that the book "uses song and story to place Broonzy in the context of African American history", which is a fair enough assessment. Because House's source for the biographical details of Broonzy's life is primarily Broonzy's autobiography, Big Bill Blues, and various interviews that Broonzy gave during his life, "story" is a particularly apt term, as Broonzy was not the most factual or consistent of informants. Because House's emphasis is on Broonzy in the context of African American culture and history, he has not done original research to tease out the hard facts of Broonzy's life before he came to the attention of a white audience, though he has done a good job of bringing together the facts from the existing literature on Broonzy.
Blue Smoke follows Big Bill Broonzy's life chronologically rather than thematically, so it is structured like a conventional biography. As he details Broonzy's life, House intersperses comments on how Broonzy's life reflected or differed from contemporary African American culture, and, when possible, amplifies these comments with quotes from song lyrics by Broonzy or his associates or, occasionally, by unrelated artists. The lyric quotes are generally one verse rather than an entire song.
House's approach to integrating Broonzy's life and music with an overview of African American culture works best for Broonzy's early life and later years, when details of his biography are fairly plentiful. During the chapters that deal with Broonzy's life as a race recording star in Chicago, there is little biographical information available, and one loses sight of Broonzy as the chapters focus on general African American history of the period.
This brings up my one complaint about the book. House's chapters covering Broonzy's years as a recording star cover much the same material as Guido Van Rijn's Roosevelt's Blues, but they are not nearly as compelling as Van Rijn's book. I think this is partly because House's focus on Broonzy limits his coverage of topics that Broonzy never touched on in his lyrics. But it's also that Van Rijn always quotes complete song lyrics while House never does. The inclusion of complete song lyrics in Roosevelt's Blues gives a much more nuanced picture of the meaning of an artist's lyrics. At 155 pages of text, and 255 pages total, House certainly had room to quote complete song lyrics, and his book would have been the better for it.
In sum, if you're interested in an in-depth treatment of Big Bill Broonzy's life, or of a discussion of the body of music that he produced, this is not the book you're looking for. But taken for what the author intended, it's a worthwhile read.