Endangered Chicago Blues I: The Root


 Feeling vulnerable to the Great Recession and at the mercy of illogical governments and corporate bullies, we can all use a little musical relief. The futuristic writer Kurt Vonnegut, shortly before his death in 2007, called African American music “America’s greatest contribution to the world.” He added, “Blues is the remedy for a world-wide epidemic of depression.” 

 Blues is music of survival. It’s about real feelings. It grew up from the ground. It gives voice to the human spirit.  As Chicago’s esteemed producer, composer and bass player Willie Dixon said, “Blues is the root. Other music is the fruit.”  

 Singing together about feelings, joys and sorrows, both in church and in the juke joint, helped African Americans in the early 20th century South cope with long work hours, low pay, unfair and racist bosses. Blues shares one’s personal story with the community. Blues has a call and a response, a rhythm and a swing.  The music makes you feel better. Watch a blues audience, eyes half closed, tapping their toes—or in a lively mood, shouting out their comments on the singer’s story.

 If it’s so good, why is real live heritage blues so hard to find?

 Some say Chicago blues is dead. It died the same year as America’s innocence, in 2001, when the city tore down the historic musical haunts, Maxwell Street and Gerri’s Palm Tavern.

 Still, 10 years later, you can find African American bands playing to their neighborhood crowd in a handful of tiny juke joints on the West and South Side. A few musicians sling a guitar, bass or drumsticks in downtown clubs for mostly-white tourists, but they are underpaid. Why is the blues, the root of all rock’n’roll, R&B and parent of hiphop, revered around the world—barely visible in Sweet Home Chicago and other American cities?  Some possible answers:

 As baby boomers growing up, we were exposed to all types of music on the radio:  classical, folk, bluegrass, R&B, jazz. It’s hard to tune in anything now except hiphop, rock, country, and a bit of Christian contemporary music. Some of the words are clever but the music is often very lame.  Most pop music these days is not created but manufactured by corporations who design and mass-test it to reach what they think appeals to the greatest number of people.

 Many young people are not developing a taste for different kinds of music, because music and other arts have been cut out of the schools.  They can find blues on the internet, including videos of Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Koko Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf—if they know to look for it. But unless they’ve seen the movie Cadillac Records, many youth have never heard of the blues. 

 American corporate culture constantly preaches the next new thing to buy. Music from the past is scorned: old school, old hat. The media has reinforced this amnesia so we’re no longer aware of our own cultural heritage. We forget to respect our elders and fail to inherit the musical soundtrack of their lives.

 In addition to the overall American neglect of history and the arts, there’s a racial dimension.  The natural progression of music being handed down in African American families and neighborhoods has been interrupted. And while some promoters in the majority European-American culture prize Black music, they don’t respect the people who are its creators. Disrespect and greed have led to the music ripoffs that nobody wants to talk about, but we must try to understand. I will address this history in the next column.

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