Black writers have said a lot 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 painful consciousness, to put one’s finger in its jagged head and get over it, not from the comfort of philosophy, but squeezing out of it an almost tragic, almost comic lyric. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Langston Hughes said it simply: “The blues had the pulse of the people who keep walking.”
Dakota A Pippins, writing for the Jazz History Tree, has this brief overview of Chicago Blues:
Indigenous to Chicago, Illinois, Chicago blues is an electric blues style of urban blues. Urban blues evolved from classic blues after the Great Migration of African Americans, who were sometimes 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. Chicago blues was heavily influenced by the Mississippi bluesmen who traveled to Chicago in the early 1940s. The development of the blues to the Chicago variety has arguably progressed from country blues, to city blues, to urban blues. Chicago blues is based on the sounds 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 features a drum and bass rhythm section (double bass 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 smaller black neighborhoods on the West Side. New trends in technology, chaotic streets and bar bands that added 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 to patrons as “The Gates”. During the 1930s, almost every big name artist played there.
You can take a visual tour of some of the clubs that were part of Chicago’s blues scene through the Library of Congress, Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection of the American Folklife Center.
Writers like Hughes and Ellison are not the only blues commentators. Musicians like Uncle Johnny Williams, seen here in a clip from Phil Ranstrom’s 2006 documentary, Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, has its own perspective. He says:
“I’ll tell you how the blues was born. We go out the hard way. We were slaves here for four hundred years … we came the hard way and a blues is the way you feel. I’ve sung the blues and shed tears ’cause you feel sorry for yourself and you’re being mistreated…and the Negro…that’s why the blues comes from him. He sang how he felt.”
Here’s a longer clip from the film that explains why Maxwell Street played a role in the birth of the Chicago blues:
Uncle John can be heard in this recording from the film’s soundtrack, And it’s free: The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell Street:
One of the most compelling documentaries I’ve seen on the 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’s still available on DVD and YouTube:
The film features commentary from activist/comedian Dick Gregory, a Buddy Guy solo that’s off the charts, and Muddy Waters singing “Hootchie Cootchie Man.” In his interview, Waters says of himself, “I think I’m the man who raised Chicago for real blues.” He also talks about Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Of BB King, he states, “He only sings urban blues … a class above 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 Studs Terkel, Reverend Dwight Riddick, Bob Koester (owner of Delmark Records) and Chicago Alderman AA Rayner, which places the story in a political and social context.
PBS American Masters has also done two major programs in blues-Can’t be satisfiedabout the life and music of Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy: Blues Chase the Blues Away.
Alas – I can’t post them here. Those of you with PBS subscribers can watch them. Grunge, however, has a fairly comprehensive piece on his life and some of the mysteries surrounding 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 Delta blues with him, Waters made a practical decision that would revolutionize the music. Abandoning 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— it 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, Messin’ with the bluesLive at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974:
I hope this history of Chicago blues will pique your interest in joining me in the comments section below, listening to some other blues, and posting some of your favorite Chicago bluesmen and women .