Chicago and urban electric blues

Black writers have had a lot to say about the blues. Ralph Ellison wrote, “The blues is an impulse to keep painful details and episodes of cruel experience alive in one’s painful consciousness, to finger the grain of its teeth, and to squeeze it out, not by the consolation of visions. A near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” As a form, the blues is an autobiographical history of personal tragedy expressed lyrically.

The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others, or by one’s own human failing.
—Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” (1952)#quotes #music #book pic.twitter.com/bnG7FRk1JO

— ChicagoBluesHistory (@ChiBluesHistory) August 15, 2022

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Langston Hughes put it simply, “The blues had the pulse beat of the people that kept moving.”

Dakota A. Pippins, writing for the Jazz History Tree, has this brief summary of the Chicago blues:

An electric blues style of urban blues native to Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Blues. Urban blues developed from classic blues after the great migration of African Americans, at times both forced and voluntary, fleeing poverty and oppression in the South to the industrial cities of the North.

Urban blues began in Chicago and St. Louis as music created by part-time musicians playing on the streets, at rental parties, and other events in the black community. Chicago Blues was heavily influenced by Mississippi bluesmen who traveled to Chicago in the early 1940s. The Chicago variety of blues has evolved into country blues, city blues, and urban blues. Chicago blues is based on the sound of electric guitar and harmonica, with the harmonica played through a PA system or guitar amplifier and both heavily amplified, often to the point of distortion. It also includes a rhythm section of drums and bass (first double bass, then bass guitar) with piano, depending on the song or artist.

Chicago’s first blues clubs were mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods on the South Side, with a few in small black neighborhoods on the West Side. New trends in technology, chaotic streets, and bar bands adding drums to the electric mix gave birth to a new club culture. One of the most famous clubs was Ruby Lee Gatewood’s Tavern, known to patrons as “The Gates”. During the 1930s, almost all the big name artists played there.

In 1947, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night for 6 months, Club Georgia (located at 4547 S. State, Chicago), held a blues battle between Sonny Boy Williamson I and Lonnie Johnson. The battle of the blues was advertised in the Chicago Defender. Sonny Boy was murdered in 1948. pic.twitter.com/41yGyCDpDb

— ChicagoBluesHistory (@ChiBluesHistory) August 17, 2022

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You can take a visual tour through some of the clubs of the Chicago blues scene through the Library of Congress, American Folklife Center’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection.

Writers like Hughes and Ellison are not the only commentators on the blues. Musicians like Uncle Johnny Williams, seen here in a clip from the 2006 documentary film by Phil Ranstrom, Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, Have your own point of view. He said:

“Imma tell you how the blues was born. We come the hard way. We’ve been slaves here for four hundred years… We come the hard way and that’s the way you feel. I’ve sung the blues and cried ’cause you feel sorry for yourself is and you’re being mistreated … and the black man … that’s why the blues comes from him. He sang what he felt like.”

Here’s a long clip from the film explaining Maxwell Street’s role in birthing the Chicago blues:

This recording can be heard from the Uncle Johnny movie soundtrack, And it’s free: the life and times of Chicago’s legendary Maxwell Street:

One of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen on the blues in Chicago was produced in 1972 By Harley Kokelis, who grew up in Chicago, and moved to England to study at the London Film School. It is still available on DVD and YouTube:

The film features commentary by activist/comedian Dick Gregory, Buddy Guy soloing which is off the charts, and Muddy Waters singing “Hoochie Coochie Man”. In his interview, Waters says of himself, “I think I’m the guy who set Chicago up for the real blues.” He also talks about Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Of B.B. King, he says, “He just sings urban blues … higher class than me.”

We hear from musicians Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, JB Hutto on slide guitar, and Floyd Jones. There are also interviews with non-musicians such as Stud Turkel, Reverend Dwight Riddick, Bob Koster (owner of Delmark Records), and Chicago Alderman AA Rayner, who place the history in a political and social context.

PBS American Masters He has also done two big shows in Blues-Can’t be satisfiedAbout the life and music of Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy: The Blues followed the Blues.

Unfortunately—they can’t be posted here. Those of you with a subscription to PBS can watch them. However, his life with grunge and some of the mysteries surrounding it, William J. There is a very detailed piece about this that Wright wrote in 2021:

The history and development of the blues includes musicians as great as McKinley Morganfield. Known by his stage name, Muddy Waters, Morganfield left the cotton fields of Mississippi in the 1940s for better opportunities up north. Bringing the country blues of the Delta with him, Waters made the pragmatic decision to revolutionize music. By setting aside his acoustic instrument and embracing the potential of the amplified electric guitar, the bluesman would help develop a sophisticated, urban-oriented form of blues music that would lead directly to the development of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. This is the true story of Muddy Waters, the father of the Chicago Blues.

Without further ado – let’s hear some Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, Machine with the bluesLive at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974:

I hope this Chicago blues history piques your interest in joining me in the comments section below, listening to some more blues, and posting your favorite Chicago bluesmen and women.

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