Why Chicago blues is dying, even in its birthplace

    Fifty years ago, Chicago’s Maxwell Street was alive with the blues. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Great Migration brought thousands of poor blacks to the city and Maxwell Street became their home. There they electrified the history of music and created the Chicago Blues. New York had jazz and New Orleans had Zydeco, but nobody had a sound like Chicago’s.

    This is the Maxwell Street that musician Frank Scott Jr. used to play at, with friends like Freddy King and Junior Wells. Together they helped turn the acoustic delta blues into “a mournful cry,” as Phil Ranstrom, a documentarian who has dedicated two movies to Maxwell Street, calls it. “It came from black people who had been persecuted, who had been abused… and whether you’re singing a cappella or playing the harmonica, or just a guitar or beating on the drums or doing whatever it is, it’s a feeling. It’s an expression of pain in its rawest form.”

    When Chicago decided to tear down the old Maxwell Street Market in 1994 to make room for the ever-expanding University of Illinois-Chicago, Scott built a bandstand. When the city leveled his bandstand, Scott was left on the streets, the last of the Maxwell Street bluesmen.

    “Maxwell Street was very important to me, and when they took it down, they took everything,” Scott says.

    Chicago was only ever two things: hog butcher to the world and home to the blues. And soon it might be neither. When storied blues musicians can’t make a living in the city, “everybody loses,” Ranstrom says: “Without the blues, Chicago is just another flyover city.” With the rise of hip-hop and the passing of many blues legends, the genre is more threatened than ever.

    So what is Chicago doing to preserve its legacy? Well, it depends on who’s judging. The 25th annual Chicago Blues Festival takes place in the heart of the city this weekend, and Barry Dolins, the festival’s director, believes that it does quite a bit to protect the blues tradition.

    “Chicago being the blues capital of the world, it’s only fitting that it should be the home of the world’s largest blues festival,” he says. “When there isn’t any major medium that’s presenting this music, the festival plays a major role in keeping that tradition alive.”

    James Porter, a freelance roots music journalist, agrees, to an extent. “There’s a select group of survivors that they’ll roll out for one last go around. It’s nice that these people are still around, but by the same token there are a lot of lesser people who need that platform,” Porter says.

    The Blues Fest has several stages where less-famous blues musicians play. For casual fans who are not looking for these musicians, however, it would appear to be a festival of those same survivors — B.B. King, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks. Porter acknowledges that “it is good that Chicago promotes the blues festival as much as it does. On the down side of that, it doesn’t seem to be any really exciting new blues coming out right now.”

    So the city isn’t on the cutting edge of promoting underground artists. No big surprise. But with many thriving, world-famous blues clubs, there’s got to be a stage somewhere.

    Again, that is debated. Steve Balkin, a blues preservationist, dismisses most of these clubs as peddlers in a fake blues. “People come from all over the world to Chicago, and they want to see Chicago blues. Some of those people don’t know anything about the blues, so if they come in a North Side blues club with mostly white people in the audience, they’re satisfied. But for people who really like blues, they want to see it at the street level, and they want to see it in the midst of African-American audiences.”

    Porter is possibly more disdainful, saying, “You’ve got people who go to some tourist trap club or sports bar, and you’ll hear people pound out ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ or ‘Hoochie Cootchie Man’ and think, ‘Oh wow, I saw some down home blues.’ When really it’s just a bar mitzvah band.”

    Isabelle Libmann, the director of special events and public relations for Buddy Guy’s Legends, one of those so-called “tourist trap clubs,” says that offering new musicians a place to play is a top priority. “That’s one thing that we’re trying to do, is reach out to a younger generation, because if we don’t, it will be gone.”

    It’s not difficult to see where her fear comes from. Rap and hip-hop have become ubiquitous in popular culture, replacing jazz and blues as the primary forms of African-American music.

    Even Ronnie Baker Brooks, blues musician and son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks, felt this pressure growing up. “When hip-hop just come along, my friends used to laugh at me for listening to Howlin’ Wolf,” he says, referring to the Chicago blues legend. “They’d say, ‘What are you listening to? You’re not an old man.’ I’d say, ‘You don’t have to be an old man to listen to the blues.’”

    Being an old man helps, however, when playing the blues. “It is an adult music. As Willie Dixon said, ‘It’s the facts of life.’ So to be able to sing about one’s experiences, it does take experiences,” says Dolan, though he admits that people as young as fourth-graders will perform at the Blues Fest this year.

    Brooks is part of the younger generation of blues musicians, but at 41 years of age, it’s hard to see how he’ll have more appeal to teenagers than Kanye West. When kids are asked to choose between bling and blues, the choice is made for them.

    “It’s a hip-hop world right now, but if it wasn’t for the blues, they wouldn’t have this hip-hop world,” Brooks says.

    Many see rap as carrying on the blues tradition. Dr. Portia Maultsby, a professor of folklore at Indiana University and the director of its Archives of African American Music and Culture, says that the “blues still exists, it’s just been reformulated into a new style reflecting contemporary trends.” She is not worried about the change, saying, “Music will change because people are constantly changing.”

    Dolins agrees, saying that “rap is in the continuum of talking blues.” He is more concerned about the effects than Maultsby is, however, adding, “In popular culture the forces of mass media really change folk music. And since there isn’t really any full-time radio or major print media that cover the blues, it may be in jeopardy.”

    Brooks, who has worked with hip-hop artists on his last two CDs, believes that hip-hop may even have something to offer the blues. “In order for it to grow, we’re going to have to accept change. But when you put the change into it, you have to be true to the music and the people who came before you. It has to be authentic.”

    When asked if he’s worried about the blues dying out, he discounts the idea.

    “It’ll never die, because it’s the facts of life. As long as we have humans on earth, we’ll have the blues.”

    There is no blues on Maxwell Street anymore. Frank Scott Jr. sits by himself, holding his guitar and following the frets while the rock and roll cover band in front of him draws a crowd by playing a Santana song. Maxwell Street knows “Black Magic Woman” now, but its eponymous “Maxwell Street Boogie” was forgotten long ago. Scott sits in the corner, alone, holding his guitar and waiting for someone to listen.

    “I’m just trying to keep the blues alive,” says Frank with a stiff laugh. “I’m just trying to keep the blues alive.”


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