Bill Broonzy and the Singing Horses

Ken Ficara
Sun Sep 5 10:40:29 EDT 2004

I've had a quote in my Quote Server (
for years, attributed to Louis Armstrong:  "All music is folk music.
Horses don't sing." But recently someone on another list questioned
whether Big Bill Broonzy said it first.

The answer appears to be yes, but it's not clear when. The questioner
pointed me to the book FOLK MUSIC: MORE THAN A SONG (1976), by
Kristine Baggelaar and Donald Milton, which uses the quote in the
introduction and attributes it to Broonzy. The quote is also noted in
in Charles Keil's 1966 book URBAN BLUES which credits it to a 1962
article in Time Magazine. Off to the Brooklyn Public Library, where a
spin through the microfilm finds a cover article on November 23, 1962,
with Joan Baez on the cover. (See the cover at

"Anything called a hootenanny ought to be shot on sight," the article
begins, giving you an idea of its condescending tone. In the timeless
Time style, it uses a (not entirely flattering) portrait of Joan Baez
as the nut around which it builds a review of the "esoteric cult and
light industry" of folk singing.

With swipes at both originators ("the shiftless geniuses who have
shouted the songs of their forebears into tape recorders provided by
the Library of Congress") and commercializers (the Kingston Trio is
"the most scorched threesome since Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego"; an
unsourced quote calls Harry Belafonte "Harry Belaphony"), the article
has kind words mainly for Jean Ritchie Frank Proffitt, as well as "a
promising young hobo named Bob Dylan," whose voice "has just the right
clothespin-on-the-nose honesty."

Broonzy is quoted on the last page, in a section discussing folk
music's forebears: Huddie Ledbetter ("a felonious Negro known as
Leadbelly ... a natural whooping primitive shouting in primary
rhythms"), Woody Guthrie ("an Oklahoman who never held a job more than
a week or so, always needed a shave, and sang for anybody who cared to
listen") and Broonzy:

         Mainly a blues singer, he was the unwashed darling of purist
         fans, but he had short patience with all the folk curators who
         insist that a true folk song has to be of unknown authorship and
         come down through the oral tradition. "I guess all songs is folk
         songs," he said. "I never heard no horse sing 'em."

Broonzy, an insightful musician who wrote and spoke eloquently about
racism, died in 1958, and the quote is unattributed. So unless the
reporter had heard this personally four years earlier, there's a
further attribution to be found. (Like its rival Newsweek, which a
journalism prof of mine once called "the great cuisnart of
journalism," Time does not attribute its articles, which are usually
reported by many people and written by committee.)

Can anyone here shed some light on the origins of this quote or when
Broonzy might have said it?



Ken Ficara
Music, quotes, writing and more at

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