This blog is about my favorite music: West Side blues and soul. I am not an authority on it. That title belongs to West Siders who have lived it. You may have been born in the Windy City, or come from the South and brought the music with you. Or you might stand, like so many people around the world, in awe of the power and beauty in this down-to-earth music.
Blues, said the late Willie Dixon, one of its great composers and arrangers, is the root of America’s popular music. It was created by poor and oppressed people just trying to get through the day.
Blues and soul music still work that way in today’s strange and troubled world. Blues is the everyday side of the same sounds you might hear in church. Blues tells people’s stories. Blues says says we may not be perfect, or in a good situation, but we can survive and even enjoy life if we stick together. Soul music says, We’re gonna make it.
Even subjected to slavery, Africans kept the rhythms of their native lands. On southern plantations they picked up European words, melodies and instruments. During the Great Migration of the 20th century, thousands of African-Americans fled Jim Crow oppression, looking for a better life on Chicago’s West Side as jobs and housing opened up in the 1950s and 60s. They brought their cooking and music with them from Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and many other places.
On Maxwell Street, on the near West Side not far from the Illinois Central rail terminal where southerners arrived in Chicago, musicians earned money in tin cups playing blues, country and gospel tunes at the street market. Using the new modern electric instruments, they could be heard above the traffic. Many storekeepers were Jewish; people nicknamed the market “Jewtown.” The merchants welcomed the musicians to plug in and draw crowds to their stores. www.maxwellstreet.org
Musicians would get together at the market and form bands. They played in dozens of small clubs, up and down State Street on the South Side, and along Roosevelt and Madison and other main streets of the West Side. Only a handful of these clubs remain, but today’s generation of musicians bravely persist.
What does West Side blues music sound like? Soulful singing. Sweet notes from guitars, keyboards, harmonicas and horns. Drum and bass rhythms that make you pat your hands and stomp your feet. This music feels down-home, like catfish, sweet potatoes and greens. Try it:
“Call My Job” with Michael Coleman and Prof. Lusk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_mhzEaQIeQ
Michael Coleman, born in Chicago, played with James Cotton and Syl Johnson, and still travels the world as one of today’s funkiest West Side guitar players. He’s appearing in Chicago this month: http://www.reverbnation.com/funkymichaelcoleman
Keyboarder “Professor” Eddie Lusk, 1948-1992, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/professor-eddie-lusk-mn0000363673/biography got his nickname from the New Orleans piano icon Professor Longhair. He played with Luther Allison, Fenton Robinson, Syl Johnson, Koko Taylor, Buddy and Phil Guy, Otis Rush and Jimmy Dawkins.
The song in the video sounds like a minor-key arrangement of piano player Detroit Junior’s tune “Call My Job.” Born in Arkansas in 1931, Emery “Detroit Junior” Williams played in Detroit with Eddie Boyd and John Lee Hooker, then with Howlin’ Wolf. He stayed on the West Side and played til his death in 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit_Junior
Have you seen any of these great musicians? Tell your stories in the comments below.