Bill Broonzy had a long and distinguished career, from spirituals to jazz to country blues to urban and back to folksy. One of 17 children born to a Southern family (precise date and location, unsure), he grew up in Arkansas. His first instrument was a cigar-box fiddle and he sang spirituals. He was a preacher, farmer, soldier and husband for awhile before he went north to Chicago around 1920.
In Chicago he started playing guitar and gigging, signed to Paramount and released his first sides in 1927. He did some recording in NYC and toured with Memphis Minnie as her second guitarist. In the '30s he started playing in a more urban combo and recorded some sides for Bluebird and Vocalion. He participated in the 1938 & '39 From Spirituals To Swing concerts and started getting a name for himself, even landing some stage acting. He also played on his brother Washboard Sam's recordings from time to time (composing many of the tunes).
By the time he signed to Mercury in the late '40s, he was already a leading light for modern, urban blues. He made his first tour of Europe in '51, and his legend loomed large in the coming folk/blues/rock boom in Britain, where he has been cited as a major influence. The '50s found him touring the world (including Africa and Asia) and making pretty good bank. He published his autobiography in '55 and shortly before his death he helped found a folk music academy.