With the possible exception of New Orleans and Memphis, few locations in history can claim to have singularly defined blues music as Chicago.
Following the great migration between 1916 to roughly 1960, many southern blues men like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon moved to northern cities such as Chicago. Along with their hope of economic prosperity, these artists also brought along their musical ideas.
Providing a stage for blues artists such as Bo Diddley, (whose famous “Diddley Beat” is one of the cornerstones of popular music) Chicago was also the home of important record labels. Chess, for example, distributed important recordings by Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Memphis Slim and in the 1950s and 1960s.
From these recordings, Rock ‘n’ Roll, country and R&B music would later come.
But according to some blues lovers and historians, the music’s cultural impact has not received proper recognition.
Two years ago, Dr. Janice Monti, chair of Dominican University’s sociology department and blues aficionado, began organizing an event to address the oversight.
“The Blues and the Spirit” symposium will take place in May on the Dominican campus in River Forest, and will take a scholarly look at the cultural legacy of Chicago’s blues and gospel music scene.
“Chicago is the blues capital of the world and the birthplace of modern gospel music, so it is the ideal place to present the first national conference on these two revolutionary art forms,” Monti said.
The symposium takes place the weekend of May 22-24.
“The conference will give attendees a rare comprehensive overview of the shared historical roots of the blues and church-based, rafter-raising gospel,” Monti added.
She got the idea for the conference during a trip to the University of Mississippi, which hosts an annual academic discussion on the origins, themes and importance of blues music.
While talking with a conference participant, Monti inquired about having similar events in Chicago.
“I realized that there really are no such events like that one in Chicago,” she said. “Consequently, I was motivated to put one together through Dominican. I have always had a deep appreciation for this music and feel that blues is the backbone of contemporary music today.”
The symposium will feature scholars of black music and culture, locally-acclaimed blues and gospel artists, a gospel workshop, and a tour of Chicago’s historic South Side Bronzeville community.
The weekend will also include a concert by Grammy nominated bluesman Otis Clay and singer Sharon Lewis on Friday, May 23 at Domincan’s Lund Auditorium, 7900 W. Division St.
The centerpiece of the symposium is “An Evening Elders Council”.
Among those scheduled for the panel of blues historians, musicians and scholars are Marie Dixon, CEO of the Blues Heaven Foundation and widow of Chicago blues icon Willie Dixon; George Bailey, English professor at Columbia College; and Sterling Plumpp, professor emeritus in English and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I was elated when Janice contacted me to participate in this event, especially sharing a stage with Sterling Plumpp, who is a personal hero of mine. It’s quite an honor,” said Bailey, who currently resides in Oak Park.
Born in Alabama but later moving to Chicago with his family at age eight, Baileys remembers his mother singing in the church choir and his father in a Jubilee Quartet. “Music was very much a part of my upbringing,” he said. “I can remember when I was younger and I met Albertina Walker. She used to perform at our church and came by our house once. In those days, people had a strong relationship with their church. It was common for the preacher and members of the congregation to come over for dinner.”
One of the reasons Bailey wanted to take part in the symposium, he said, was to address the misconceptions youth have about the blues.
“I think our young people are not informed about the history of this music and its importance to us. They may figure it is just a bunch of buck-tooth black guys in straw hats sitting on a porch and singing about ‘somebody done them wrong’- it is so much more than that. It is part of our cultural identity.”
Author David Whiteis will be a part of a panel discussion on the roles and responsibilities of writers who chronicle the blues.
Whiteis developed a love for blues music after hearing Eddie Shaw, one-time saxophonist for blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, playing in a club in Boston.
Later, he moved to Chicago and began work on a novel featuring oral histories of Chicago’s blues scence.
“Gospel and blues are the very pulse of the African-American community,” said Whiteis, who is currently a journalist and faculty member of both Harold Washington College and Dominican University.
He published Chicago Blues: Portrait and Stories two years ago.
“I don’t believe that the younger generation do not appreciate the historical facets of this music,” Whiteis said, “however, I do feel as though it is in danger of being forgotten because of the lack of exposure of it to them.”
Whiteis added that the blues history in Chicago is still very much alive and “is still a cultural force in the black community.”