Monday, June 26, 2006

Whiteis' Chicago Blues

Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories
By David Whiteis
University of Illinois Press

For many “Sweet Home Chicago” is the ultimate blues anthem to the Windy City. Many only know it from the Blue Brothers repertoire, but the hipper recognize it as a Robert Johnson classic. For many of the musicians profiled in Whiteis’ Chicago Blues, it is part of the “set list from Hell,” the old chestnuts “considered obligatory on Chicago’s touristy North Side circuit.” (p. 182) Despite its clichéd status, it exemplifies the strong role the Blues have played in the cultural lives of Chicagoans.

In Chicago Blues, Whiteis describes the post-war Chicago Blues as a living, evolving form of musical expression. Many of the artists profiled, like Sharon Lewis, are influenced by the Blues tradition, but are exploring a more contemporary, soul and r&b influences in the so-called “soul-blues” style.

Another frequent Blues dichotomy is that of the sacred and the profane. Whiteis profiles Denise LaSalle for instance, who “had been inserting a gospel interlude into her blues shows for some time, which was already a bold move, given the coarse nature of what usually preceded and followed it.” (p. 111) Artie White started his musical career in 1956 as a gospel singer, not defecting professionally to the Blues until 1966. Yet he told Whiteis in an interview that the church is still a strong calling for him:

“I’ve been called to preach. I am a Christian man. Thing about that, I wouldn’t put God behind. If I wanna preach, I’m gon’ quit the music. If it’s strong enough for me to go, and I see he want me to go, I’ll quit the music.” (p. 228)

Whiteis profiles some of the giants of Chicago Blues, like Junior Wells and Sunnyland Slim, but he gives more attention to musicians working today, who have a strong local following, but may not be known widely outside Chicago. Unfortunately, many of the local venues have closed.

It is in his description of one such venue, the Maxwell Street Market that Whiteis loses perspective. Once an open-air weekend market, thronged with street performers playing the Blues for tips, the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois came to an arrangement in which the Maxwell Street Market’s “entire neighborhood would be seized under the right of eminent domain and used to expand its campus.” (p. 76) Whiteis bemoans the loss of the Maxwell Street Market as “a corporate-driven urban vision being visited on America in the age of high-tech economic conversion and deindustrialization. It’s Ralph Nader’s ‘planned obsolescence’ all over again, but this time the entities being deemed obsolete are people.” (p. 82) As the work of the city government and the Illinois State College system, corporate America played no role in the demise of Maxwell Street. In an ironic twist of fate, Whiteis’ profiles of Chicago’s Blues musicians and venues would ultimately be published by the University of Illinois Press.

As Whiteis’ Chicago Blues amply demonstrates, there is indeed a vital blues scene in Chicago. It is a city where live music is still an essential part of a good night out. While the Maxwell Street Market is history, many new venues still keep the Blues alive. His book would be valuable reading for Blues aficionados looking to connect with the current Chicago scene.