Seasoned blues writer and observer, Sandra Pointer-Jones

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” wrote the revered Black poet Maya Angelou, who just passed last month. Professor Dr. Janice Monti, Dominican University’s chair of Sociology and Criminology studies and founder of the Blues and Spirit Symposium there, quoted Angelou last week in her opening remarks before the Fourth symposium in Forest Park.   

As a journalist helping to bring some stories to light, I share Professor Monti’s identity as “a past-middle-age white lady who is passionate about the music but also about the cultural and racial issues that go hand in hand with it.”  She has led many student tours to the Mississippi Delta, and founded the Blues and Spirit Symposium in 2008.

Professor Monti’s word for this kind of bridge-building is “cultural competence.” She told Tom Holmes, retired minister and Oak Park blogger attending the symposium, that cultural competence is a value, an attitude and a skill. It means wading into another culture, being sensitive and able to navigate that “other world” while maintaining one’s own identity.

Blues tells stories of one person and a whole community. B.B. King sings that he first got the blues coming over here on a ship:  The moans of enslaved people, speakers of over 3,000 African languages thrown together in cruel, dreadful conditions, evolved into spirituals, into work songs, then into blues and jazz, as poet Sterling Plumpp pointed out at the Symposium. Plummp uses jazz and blues rhythms in his poetry; his latest work  Home/Bass aims to tell stories in the voice of the late South and West Side bluesman Willie Kent.,0,6002792.column

White people may admire the arts and inventions that Black people have created, but fail to relate with the people themselves. Meanwhile, some African Americans shun blues music as a painful reminder of that terrible time of slavery, Jim Crow— and now New Jim Crow.  Ironically, the blues, and forms created from it including soul, gospel and hiphop, have been a key to survival in hard times all along. The music brings people together and gives a simple way for each to tell his or her personal story. A story might be happy or sad, but the release of feelings inevitably makes people feel better. This gives us all a reason to go on. 

When outsiders, including white people, pay attention to Black music and respect the people and the culture that created it—including fair compensation for musicians— we can reinforce these positive feelings and the community’s self image. Researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow started digging into 1920s “race records” as a 21 year old white guy in his native Mississippi during the 1950s. When Wardlow asked Black neighbors about the artists on the records, he was welcomed. “These musicians were heroes. People started telling me stories.”  He said one faction, though, didn’t welcome his work: the Klan.

Jim O’Neal,, founding editor of Living Blues magazine, has worked lately on a tourist map of blues landmarks for Mississippi, a state which produced dozens of recorded musicians. Once the project got going, people from communities with no previous written reports on their musicians wanted to join in. They have come up with oral stories over several generations and joined researchers in hunting for documents and audio tapes. 

 “It’s been a challenge but a lot of fun,”O’Neal told the Symposium. “You have to be honest about the conditions in Mississippi that gave rise to the blues. It’s ironic now that the state is turning around and promoting it. Tourism is being promoted, but the content of our markers is honest and accurate.”

Illinois Entertainer “Sweet Home” columnist Rosalind Cummings-Yeates has just come out with a book with History Press: Exploring Chicago Blues, directed at tourists who need an introduction to the music and the culture here.

Can local youth get turned on to blues history too? Sandra Pointer-Jones, another Black female writer who authored the definitive history of Chicago’s Delmark records, says, “It has to be organic, not shoved down the kids’ throats. I heard the music around the house growing up; my mom was a church person but once a week she’d let her hair down and play blues on the radio. My son would hear the music around my house, and now he’s teaching his children, just talking about the music and the history.”

Can the West Side of Chicago also use blues music and history to tell real stories, educate our youth, and promote economic development here?  Sounds like a theme for another symposium:

And, on a practical level, something for the Austin Weekly News Bridge group and other local boosters to consider.