A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the origin of the blues down in the south of the USA. The other major style of blues arose in Chicago at the time of the Great Depression. The depression began in 1929 and there is argument as to when it finished. Those at the top of the heap say it lasted about five years, but for most people it didn’t end until World War II in 1939. Being a soldier was the first full-time job many had. I could go on about conservative politicians blaming the unemployed for being unemployed, but that’s an old song.
The south of the USA was massively hit by the depression. Crop prices fell by about 60 per cent and rural unemployment was epidemic – plenty to write some blues about. The feeling was that there were better times to be had in the north of the USA. At least racism was not so bad – the Klan didn’t ride in Chicago. A general drift began from the south to the north, especially Chicago, which, with its massive stockyards and steel mills, was thought to have jobs.
In a city environment, if there was no industrial employment, no farms at all, an unskilled worker who could sing could at least live by busking. One of the key places where this happened was Maxwell Street which had a large open-air market where you could buy and sell pretty much anything. The major record companies, such as Paramount Records, RCA Victor, and Columbia Records, got blues musicians at bargain rates and gained them international exposure. Later, local record labels sprang up – Bluebird, Cobra, Delmark, Alligator, and the famous Chess Records.
The honour roll of Chicago blues players includes many of the best known blues players and singers such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Mike Bloomfield, Homesick James, Floyd Jones, Mighty Joe Young, Elmore James, Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake, Blind John Davis and Erwin Helfer. Never heard of them? Hit YouTube and prepare to be entranced.
Chicago blues was a crucible for the development of rock and roll. Chuck Berry originally signed with Chess Records. Keith Richards met Mick Jagger when Keith saw him with a blues album on a railway station. As well as the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Rory Gallagher were all influenced by Chicago blues musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.
In the 1970s, the image of Chicago and blues was once again thrust into the limelight with the film The Blues Brothers which had a host of amazing musicians either as main cast or playing cameo roles. The core of the Blues Brothers Band was Booker T. and the M.G.’s. If you listen to meanderings on 94.7 the Pulse, their theme is the M.G.’s hit from years ago, ‘Green Onions’.
Other major musicians in the film included Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. Incidentally, the clerk in the Cook County Assessor’s Office was Steven Spielberg! Musically, this is certainly one of the most amazing films ever made.
Most Chicago blues musicians started out busking, then playing for house parties, then in gigs at proper venues. Sound familiar?
Written by Dr John Lamp. Presented by The Sleepy Hollow Blues Club