David Bromberg attended Columbia University in the 1960s, traveling out to Queens to study guitar with blues great Reverend Gary Davis. It’s been said that Bromberg plays guitar with the precision of a diamond cutter and sings like a bull in a china shop. The liquid, mysteriously evocative ragtime guitar lines Bromberg got from Davis, but the bull developed over time, as he explored a unique way of developing the blues.
Bromberg’s art is extreme, and it comes through best in live performances, in numbers lasting up to fifteen minutes or longer. It is rooted in the improvisatory origins of the blues and in the comic side the music has always had in African American tradition, but Bromberg goes beyond its previous limits, drastically expanding blues lines with dazzling infixes that are sardonic and funny because of their sheer outsized irrepressibility. They resist reproduction on the printed page, but in “Will Not Be Your Fool” the relatively conventional opening stanza’s closing line
I’ll be your lover or your friend, darling,
But I’ll be goddamned if I’m ever gonna be your fool.
expands ultimately to
I’ll see everyone you ever knew, loved, touched, stood next to, heard of, smelt, felt, dreamed about in your life or any of your descendants’ lives–down to the 168th person
Roasted and tortured in hell for one billion trillion years, sixteen eternities, twenty-seven forevers, eleven thousand years after that,
Before I will be your fool!
Some musicians treat the blues as an object of reverence or as a vehicle for pure virtuoso instrumental display. Bromberg catches the music’s wounded bravado and humor.
Bromberg’s output has not been limited to the blues. An excellent fiddler (and mandolinist and resonator guitar player), he intersperses old American music of various kinds, and a few originals, around his shows. Probably his most famous single number is a seven-minute version of “Mr. Bojangles,” complete with a humorous recollection of the song’s composer, Jerry Jeff Walker; a gentle transition that connects Walker to the song’s titular street performer; and one of Bromberg’s most beautiful guitar solos at the end.
When Bromberg had pushed his high-flying blues fancies as far as they could go, he took a hiatus of nearly two decades, operating a violin shop in Wilmington, Delaware. His shows since his return to the stage have been choice and rare. He’s now seventy-one, and his return to the Ark on October 16 should not be missed (see Nightspots).