Maxwell Street: Jews and Blues

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By Bonni McKeown

On the near West Side not far from the Illinois Central rail terminal where thousands of migrating southerners arrived in Chicago, many musicians earned their first city money in tin cups at the Maxwell Street market.   

In a city divided into ethnic neighborhoods, Maxwell Street was one place where everyone came together and exchanged their goods and part of their culture. The only color that mattered was green: money.  Whether you came from Italy, Mexico or the American South, you could get a toe-hold in Chicago by selling your goods or buying supplies cheap on Maxwell Street. Customers and sellers haggled, just like a Middle Eastern bazaar.  A slogan in one second-story window read: "We Cheat You Fair."

The city established the open-air market around Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street in 1911. It thrived in that spot until around 2001, when the city and UIC, ignoring community protests, tore down most of the historic stores to re-do the area as an upscale commercial district.  A remnant of the outdoor market still operates on Sundays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a vacant lot at 800 S. DesPlaines Street.

In Maxwell Street's heyday, from the 1920s through 1990s, vendors would set up carts and booths along the sidewalks in front of the stores. Each Sunday, the streets were completely packed with pedestrians of all ages, shopping for everything from hosiery to hubcaps. Laura Kameldulski and Lori Grove of the Maxwell Street foundation show you the pictures in their book:

Entertainers earned nickels and dimes amusing the shoppers--singing, juggling, doing magic tricks.  "Chicken man" had a chicken who would perch on his shoulder, dance, and pretend to sleep. Meat packing plants nearby made the area famous for its hotdogs and Polish sausage, which were dispensed 24 hours a day at Jim's stand. Red and yellow awnings at hotdog spots scattered around town still imitate the Maxwell Street colors.  

Musicians--country, gospel, and especially blues-- would meet at the market. Blues bands would form there, to play 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.  Southerners, arriving by the thousands pursuing jobs in the big city in the 1950s, craved the down-home sounds. Musicians knew they had to amplify to compete with city traffic and noise. They adopted modern electric instruments including the guitar and bass guitar.  Maxwell Street became known as the birthplace of Chicago electric blues. The Maxwell Street sound was raw and plain-spoken, reflecting both the country and the city.

Many of the Maxwell Street storekeepers were Jewish; people nicknamed the market "Jewtown." The merchants welcomed the musicians to plug in and draw crowds to their stores.  As they prospered, the Jewish community gradually moved west into Lawndale, Austin, and then to suburbs such as Glencoe.

African Americans followed some of the Jewish migration patterns and ended up on the West Side. You can see Black churches today in Lawndale and Austin, housed in former synagogues. Robert Packer has discovered these buildings around the city.  

Some Jewish entrepreneurs, such as Bernard Abrams and his wife Red, with their Maxwell Street Radio and Record Company and their small label OraNelle Records, promoted the Black musicians.

The Blues Brothers movie scene where Aretha Franklin sings "Think!" was filmed in 1979 in a set based on Nate's Delicatessen on Maxwell Street. The Rolling Stones copied singing and stage dancing styles of Maxwell Street performers.  

 Daddy Stovepipe, Little Walter Jacobs, Robert Nighthawk, Blind Arvella Gray,  Eddie Taylor, and Floyd Jones were among many blues people who played on Maxwell Street. Singer Johnnie Mae Dunson Smith, known as the Queen of Maxwell Street, was a key voice in the year 2000 protests against tearing it down.   Johnnie Mae wrote songs for herself and for Jimmy Reed.  She was "a whole lotta woman."

Jimmie Lee Robinson, who grew up on the neighborhood, went on a hunger strike and sang his own blues to protest its demise:

Over a decade after demolition, it's still hard to see why city leaders didn't appreciate the cultural value in the historic mixing bowl that was Maxwell Street.


For more blog stories on Chicago West Side blues, click the author's name above.

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Colleen Anderson from Charleston, WV  

Posted: November 13th, 2013 3:42 PM

Thank you for an important history lesson!

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