“I love songs, and I love songwriting, and there’s a standard of songwriting within Chicago blues in particular. I don’t like the sad blues, necessarily; the Chicago blues is what I like, which is the kind of blues you can dance to.” – Sinead O’Connor
As a self-proclaimed musicologist, I took the time to study how the blues became the foundation to all other forms of American Popular Music. The Chicago blues is a musical style form of blues music indigenous to Chicago, Illinois. Chicago blues is an electric blues style of urban blues.
This style of music that I really dig prompted me to want to know more about how the Chicago Blues Live Music scene began.
I personally feel like Sinead O’Connor when it comes to the Blues genre. I am an eclectic listener of music and I love exploring the origin of things. While listening to the blues I noticed some of it was really depressing and some of it made you laugh and feel good. I personally like to laugh and feel good! In Chicago, the Blues is apart of the cities culture.
You can’t mention Chicago and not mention the blues. So it’s only right that we explore the who, where and how the Chicago blues began that brought influence to the world.
Education is important and knowledge is power. Upon indulging in this information you will learn more about American Music History, The Blues and it’s sub-genre The Chicago Blues than you’ve probably ever learned in your life. Seriously!
Today I hope you learn how The Chicago Blues became one of America’s most beloved styles of music and walk away with a renewed appreciation of where it all started.
The Blues Genre: What Kind of music is the Blues?
Blues is an African-American music that navigates a wide range of emotions and musical styles. “Feeling blue” is expressed in songs whose verses wail expressions of grief or injustice or express longing for a better life and lost loves, jobs, and money.
But blues is also a boisterous dance music that celebrates pleasure and success.
The blues has deep roots in American history, predominantly African-American history. Blues is a music genre and musical form originated by African Americans in the United States around the end of the 19th century. …on Southern plantations.
Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves—African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields.
It’s generally accepted that the music genre evolved from African musical traditions, African spirituals, African chants, African-American work songs, field hollers, shouts and drum music, revivalist hymns, country dance music and the folk music of European-Americans (questionably) that bellowed rhymed simple narrative ballads.
The blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.
“The Blues” as it is so affectionally called, the name originated with the 17th-century English expression “the blue devils,” for the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal. Shortened over time to “the blues,” it came to mean a state of agitation or depression.
The “Father of the Blues”, was William Christopher Handy. Handy was an African American composer and musician who lived from 1873 to 1958. He is widely recognized as one of the leaders in popularizing blues music.
By the turn of the century, a couple’s dance that involved slowly grinding the hips together called “the blues” or “the slow drag” was popular in Southern juke joints.
A rural juke joint would be jammed on weekends with couples getting their drink on, doing the pre-coital shuffle to the accompaniment of a “bluesman” on guitar.
Today, musicians play “the blues” in the twelve-bar format introduced by William C. Handy, in his 1912 sheet music “Memphis Blues.” according to bluesman “Little” Milton Campbell, Jr. who shared this information during an interview with Debra Devi for her book “The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu: How Blues Became The Foundation To American Popular Music.”
How Blues Became The Foundation To American Popular Music
The Blues Genre was created when record companies figured out a way to profit from it.
Recorded blues and country can be found from as far back as the 1920s when the popular music recording industry developed and created marketing categories called “race music” and “hillbilly music” to sell music by blacks for blacks and by whites for whites respectively.
By the end of the 1940s, jazz had grown into such varied fields as bebop and jazz. Rock and roll were soon to become the most important component of American popular music, beginning with the rockabilly boom of the 1950s.
Genres of The Blues
The Blues can be categorized into many genres and sub-cultures. Here is a list just to name a few:
- Acid blues
- African blues
- British blues
- Canadian blues
- Chicago blues
- Classic female blues
- Contemporary R&B
- Country blues
- Delta blues
- Detroit blues
- Dirty blues
- Electric blues
- Gospel blues
- Hill country blues
- Hokum blues
- Jazz blues
- Jump blues
- Kansas City blues
- Louisiana blues
- Memphis blues
- New Orleans blues
- Piano blues
- Piedmont blues
- Punk blues
- Rhythm and blues (R&B)
- Soul blues
- St. Louis Blues
- Swamp blues
- Texas blues
- West Coast blues
The Electric Blues is a type of blues music distinguished by the use of the electric guitar as a lead instrument and the amplification of the instruments, including the lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, and occasionally the harmonica or keyboard. Pioneered in the 1930s, it emerged as a genre in Chicago in the 1940s.
The Chicago blues is an electric blues style of urban blues.
The Chicago Blues Live Music Scene: How It All Began
The roots of Chicago blues music don’t actually start with a particular song or musician.
The art form can be traced to the Illinois Central Railroad, dubbed “the IC” by Chicago residents.
The IC transported the blues to Chicago in the form of Mississippi migrants who carried their musical traditions with them.
The most popular train was the Panama Limited, that supplied service between Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans.
This migration of African Americans from the South to the North helped develop what would become known as Chicago Blues.
Around World War I, multitudes of southern blacks moved north to escape the brutal Jim Crow laws and destroyed cotton crops.
The multitudes came north to seek the promise of more economic opportunities and an existence free from lynchings and the inequality of Jim Crow laws.
The war in Europe stopped the European immigration that had supplied labor for northern factories, so northern businessmen anxiously recruited black workers from the south.
These are the circumstances that brought crowds of Mississippians to Chicago during the Great Migration, filling the South and West sides of the city of Chicago and laying the foundation for the creation of Chicago Blues.
“The Blues may have started in the south but it developed into a sophisticated art form in the Northern Cities,” explains Sterling D. Plumpp, a renowned poet of Chicago blues and retired professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Plumpp participated in the latter half of the Great Migration, catching the IC from Mississippi to Chicago in 1961.
He landed in the bustling west side neighborhood of Lawndale and later, the south side area of Woodlawn, Plump walked to popular neighborhood joints to catch Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
He said he recognized the blues rhythms that had surrounded him growing up in Mississippi, but they had taken on a smoother, electrified sound in Chicago.
The blues was typically played with acoustic guitar and harmonica. The Delta blues sound traveled to Chicago and adapted to the new environment with straightforward guitar and harp accompaniment of country blues evolved into piano and guitar tunes,
unfolding a urbaner sophisticated sound.
By the 1920s, this new blues sound was being recorded by Chicago record labels.
“Blues singers came from the agricultural class.
They were used to the style they sang in the fields, says Plummp.
They created the music, the clubs, and the scene.”
The most significant of Chicago “race” recording labels was Bluebird Records, run by Elliott Everett “Eli” Oberstein and Lester Melrose, who helped develop the recorded Chicago Blues sound into a consistent line up of singer, guitar, piano, bass, drum and an occasional harmonica or sax.
By the late 30s, Chicago blues had a distinct sound and mood.
In the words of Austin Sonnier explains in A Guide to the Blues: History, Who’s, Who Research Sources:
“Departing from the ease and subdued temperament of the blues that went before, the emotional level of blues in Chicago in the late 1930s and early 1940s was beginning to pick up. By that time the city’s black population had established its own cultural roots, and there began a new feeling of assertion in the music. Different instrumental combinations sprung up. Melodic and rhythm patterns changed, and offbeat accents became popular.”
The emotional pain of the blues was quieted with a focus on the lively band rhythms.
The first stop for musicians landing in Chicago was Maxwell Street. It was called “Jew Town”, because of the large numbers of Eastern European Jewish vendors who dominated the market with pushcarts.
The open-air market was centered on Maxwell and Halsted Street.
By the 40s the bluesman had started to hook up amplifiers so their blues sound could carry across the crowded market.
Maxwell street served as an introduction to the Chicago Blues scene; before the musicians could win a club gig or a record contract, they would get their feet wet on Maxwell street first.
Honeyboy Edwards autobiography “The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing“, he gave account to how the musicians would walk from Memphis, Arkansas, and Mississippi with their guitars on their shoulders because they found out they could make some money on Maxwell Street!
After establishing a following on Maxwell Street, blues musicians could maneuver that into playing in the blues clubs that surrounded the South and West Sides of the city.
An array of clubs represented the chance to make more money than the musicians had ever seen on southern plantations and rural towns.
It also presented opportunities to play on stages before appreciative, dancing crowds.
The most popular clubs were all located in the neighborhood where the recent African American migrants were forced to settle.
The “Black Belt” and the “black metropolis,” known as Bronzeville, where African American’s were segregated and forced to create their own businesses since they weren’t welcome downtown.
Instead, they opened their own restaurant’s grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and even a large department store, The South Center.
At night, the main strip of Forty-Seventh Street was lit up with nightclubs and lounges, including The Regal Theater, 708 Club, The Parkway Ballroom, The Blouvard Lounge, The Savoy, Squares and Gerri’s Palm Tavern.
Inside these urban juke joints, acoustic strains of country blues evolved into the electric rhythms of what would eventually be dubbed Chicago Blues.
Playing on Maxwell Street was an easy introduction to the city. It was similar to playing the corners and country stores in rural towns: you just grabbed a spot and started to play.
But performing inside a Bronzeville club or lounge was a different story. Typically new musicians would get their starts by sitting in with the established musicians. Owners would hear them and book them at their clubs, initiating them onto the slippery road to a big city musicians career.
The simple acoustic guitars and personal lamentations were altered by the big city and grew into bands with not just guitar and harmonica but also bass guitar, drums, piano and sometimes saxophone. The music was amplified to be heard over the rowdy bar crowds, and the lyrics expanded to enclosed broader urban experiences. And they called it Chicago Blues.
My hope is that you have a better understanding of how the Chicago Blues developed into this popular music genre where all other forms of music all over the world originated from. African American Chicago Musicians and Singers played a major role in popularizing the Blues Genre and creating the Live Music Blues Scene. For a list of the best places to hear the Chicago Blues click here.
To learn more about the Blues Genre and American Music check out Popular Music And The Underground: Foundation Of Jazz, Rock, Country, And Blues, 1900-1950.
To learn more about the Chicago Blues you can read Exploring Chicago Blues: Inside The Scene, Past and Present.
Do you enjoy the Chicago Blues? How much of this history were you aware of? Leave your comments in the forum section below! Please sign our email list to personally receive Soulful Chicago Blog articles and updates! Thank you in advance!