If any city is to be dubbed the home of the modern urban blues, Chicago can certainly lay claim to that title. That is not to say that St. Louis, Detroit, and other places in the path of the great Black migration from the South northward, are not also locations of the shift from the classic Delta blues of the South to the electrified, amplified blues of the big urban cities of the northern Midwest. However, Chicago birthed so many musicians that were key to the shift, which went on to affect the later birth of rock ‘n’ roll on two continents, that Chicagoans can righteously call themselves the title holders.
Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Koko Taylor are all names that blues fans are aware of, and there are too many more to list here who never achieved national fame but contributed to the crafting of a sound heard round the world.
Join me in today’s #BlackMusicSunday visit to Chicago blues history.
Black writers have had a lot to say about the blues. Ralph Ellison wrote, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Langston Hughes put it simply, “Blues had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.”
Dakota A Pippins, writing for the Jazz History Tree, has this brief summary of Chicago Blues:
Indigenous to Chicago, Illinois, Chicago blues is an electric blues style of urban blues. Urban blues evolved from classic blues following the Great Migration of African Americans, which was both forced and voluntary at times, fleeing from poverty and oppression in the south to the industrial cities of the north.
Urban blues started in Chicago and St. Louis as music created by part-time musicians playing in the streets, at rent parties, and other events in the black community. Chicago blues was heavily influenced by the Mississippi bluesmen who traveled to Chicago in the early 1940s. The development of blues up to the Chicago variety arguably progressed from country blues, to city blues, to urban blues. Chicago blues is based on the sound of the electric guitar and the harmonica, with the harmonica played through a PA system or guitar amplifier and both heavily amplified, often to the point of distortion. It also features a rhythm section of drums and bass (double bass at first, then bass guitar) with piano, depending on the song or performer.
The first blues clubs in Chicago were mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods on the South Side, with a few in the smaller black neighborhoods on the West Side. New trends in technology, chaotic streets, and bar bands adding drums to an electric mix gave birth to a new club culture. One of the most famous clubs was Ruby Lee Gatewood’s Tavern, known by patrons as “The Gates.” During the 1930s, virtually every big-name artist played there.
You can take a visual tour through some of the clubs which were part of the Chicago blues scene via 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, has his own perspective. He says:
“Imma tell you how the blues was born. We come up the hard way. We was slaves here for four hundred years … we come up the hard way and a blues is the way you feel. I have sung the blues and shedded tears because you feel sorry for yourself and you’re being mistreated … and the Black man ... that’s why the blues come from him. He sung as he felt.”
Here’s a longer clip from the film which explains why Maxwell Street played a role in birthing the Chicago blues:
Uncle Johnny can be heard on this recording from the soundtrack of the film, And This is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell Street:
One of the most riveting documentaries I’ve seen on blues in Chicago was produced in 1972 by Harley Cokeliss, 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, a Buddy Guy solo that is off the charts, and Muddy Waters singing “Hootchie Cootchie Man.” In his interview, Waters says about himself, “I think I’m the man who set Chicago up for the real blues.” He also talks about Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. About BB King, he states, “He only sings urban blues … a higher class than me.”
We hear from musicians Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, J.B. Hutto on slide guitar, and Floyd Jones. There are also interviews with non-musicians like Studs Terkel, Reverend Dwight Riddick, Bob Koester (owner of Delmark Records), and Chicago Alderman A.A. Rayner, which places the history into a political and social context.
PBS American Masters has also done two major programs on the blues—Can’t Be Satisfied, about the life and music of Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away.
Sadly—can’t post them here. Those of you with PBS subs can watch them. Grunge, however, has a pretty comprehensive piece on his life and some of the mystery around it, written by William J. Wright in 2021:
Few musicians loom as large in the history and development of the blues as McKinley Morganfield. Better known by his stage name, Muddy Waters, Morganfield left the cotton fields of Mississippi in the 1940s for better opportunities in the North. Bringing the country blues of the Delta with him, Waters made a practical decision that would revolutionize music. By setting his acoustic instrument aside 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, father of the Chicago Blues.
Without further ado—let’s listen to some Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, Messin' with the Blues, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974:
I hope this Chicago blues history will whet your interest to join me in the comments section below, to hear some more blues, and to post some of your favorite Chicago bluesmen and women.