Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Chicago Blues

I have a Proustian association to The Blues. I don’t know where it came from, but somewhere, someplace, a memory of the Blues must have seeded itself in my psyche, making me feel safe and secure and whole. Strange, given that the Blues are largely about loss and despair. Still, when I hear the twang of a wailing guitar, the funky blues beat, or a harmonica riff, I feel like I’m home. I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I first experienced this “petite madeleine” soon after I moved to Chicago, when I was introduced to Kingston Mines. Yes, I know it’s a tourist place, but they do book all the great Blues performers in town. In fact, there’s no better place in the world to hear the Blues than Chicago. Whether it’s Legends, Rosa’s, BLUES, or even Bill’s in Evanston, you know from the instant you walk in that you’re in for a ride. At the same time it’s apt to be a sobering one – you’re listening to people tell you about the lover who did them wrong, trouble on the job, dreams that will never come true. In that sense, the Blues are the Noir of music. You know you’re on a journey to a bitter end, but you don’t want to stop.

I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the Blues that sets off such a visceral reaction in me. In fact, for years I’ve tried to transpose it to the page. I haven’t succeeded. At times I thought it might not be possible: that maybe the music (the sensual) and language (the cerebral) are too far apart. That it’s like trying to describe color to someone who’s been blind from birth.

Then I ran across Ace Atkins and I realized he’s already done it. Ace has written several mysteries centered on the Blues, and he comes closer to capturing the essence of the music and the people who play it than anyone I’ve read.

Take this example, from his first novel Crossroad Blues

“The blues came from all he knew. All he was. He put that lonesome feeling in each note. The longing. The losses. He rubbed his callous black hands together and thought of the place in his heart where the blues dwelled. Every day he’d worked on the farm. Every time he was beaten by his stepfather because of his smart mouth.”

Or this, also from Crossroad Blues:

“The Blues sound better in a venue of imperfection. A cracked ceiling. Scuffed floor. Peeling white paint on the bricks. It all somehow adds to the acoustics...”

And from Leavin’ Trunk Blues, which is set in Chicago:

“JoJo’s Blues Bar was a warm shot of whiskey, a cold Dixie on the side, and blues that could exorcise demons like a voodoo princess.”

He nailed it, at least for me.

I’m no expert, but I have learned a few things about the Blues. I know there’s a huge legacy of Blues in Chicago, one that includes Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor just for starters. I’m also aware that some of the clubs mentioned above are considered tourist traps, pale imitations of the South and West side clubs of fifty years ago, when white faces were rare and a veil of cigarette smoke hung in the room. I know, too, that there’s a difference between Delta, Chicago, Texas and Mississippi Blues, but I’m not sure what it is – except that Chicago Blues players use the guitar in ways your mama never taught you.

But I’ve also learned something that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed. A friend of mine is in pre-production of a documentary about the Blues that will feature some of the best next-generation blues artists in Chicago. In doing research, he came across an irony: the people who give us so much still have too little. Like their counterparts a generation ago, a lot of Blues musicians today are barely getting by. They earn too little. And many don’t understand their intellectual property rights, which means they are vulnerable to those who do and aren’t afraid to manipulate those rights. They might be missing out on other benefits, too. The good news is that Koko Taylor has created a foundation
to address some of these issues. Check it out. They need your help.

But the real irony is that despite the hardships, these same musicians keep on playing, taking gigs that only cover their drinks, traveling long distances just to jam. When I asked why, my friend said, “Because they can’t stop. They have to play.”

Now that’s noir.

As writers, we can relate.

(For more information about the Chicago blues documentary, contact Bob Axelrod at raxelrod@brandxfilms.com)

A program note: Barb D’Amato and I will be doing a few events in Michigan this weekend. We’ll be at the Cromaine Public Library in Hartland on Friday, the Romeo District Library in Washington on Saturday, and the Kerrytown Book Fest in Ann Arbor on Sunday. If you’re in the area, come on down!


raxelrod said...


I haven’t been this aware of Proust since scanning those college catalogs for the advanced lit classes I now regret not taking. Between your blog entry and seeing the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” twice in the past few weeks (which I highly recommend) I now actually know who Proust was … well sort of.

At the beginning of this summer I considered myself an occasional and casual fan of the blues. Since then, in the process of researching the film you so graciously mentioned in your column, I have learned much about the history, the masters and today’s blues scene (mainly in Chicago). Your description of blues as the “Noir of music” set off a light bulb in my head and helped me refine (at least in my head) some of the cinematic stylings for the film. Thanks!

I agree with much of your portrayal of today’s blues scene, but would suggest that “tourist trap” may be a bit of a harsh description. Among the places you mentioned, there’s no doubt that at least one of them is a huge “tourist attraction.” To me “tourist trap” connotes a place or event that suckers the tourist into paying too much for a disappointing experience. I believe that the tourists who visit these “attractions” get what they came for and sometimes more. Unfortunately, what they came for may not be consistent with a furthering of blues as a musical and cultural force and is often quite frustrating to the artists.

Throughout much of the blues community today, from the club owners to the record labels and to the fans themselves, there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo when it comes to blues music. Why? Well, the sad truth is that the blues are fading in popularity, air play and store shelf space. As a result, the labels are less willing to take risks on new artists, the club owners seek to appeal to the audiences they already have and the fans seem to have some ideal notion of what constitutes the blues. Creativity and innovation becomes stifled, less new artists see a future in the blues and the audiences get exposed to diminishing variety.

Yet somewhere deep in the hearts of humankind there is a passion unleashed when this music plays. There are universal themes that in the moment become completely personal. And there is a great sense of community in the blues scene that does exist.

Well, enough of this ranting. Love your columns and look forward to more.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, What a generous and fascinating essay.

bookedit said...

Libby, I just had to say that I feel exactly the way you do about the blues. They always make me feel good, right from the first few notes, and don't know why that is. (Actually, now that I think of it, folk music does that, too, and much of that traditional music also has sadness as its subject matter.) Anyway, used to live near Lincoln Avenue in the 1970s and visited all the great clubs there, including the old Kingston Mines site, and saw many of the blues legends up close and personal, including Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues, whom you mention. Now, live in the western suburbs, have gotten older and don't like the smoke, so just listen to my husband's vast blues collection on CD. Mysteries and the blues--how fortunate we are to have both.

Tony said...

I do a weekly blues podcast and share the lifelong love of the blues.

One of my listeners sent along his theory of why the blues is, ultimately, so uplifting. The blues says to the world, "You've given me all you've got, and I'm still standing." It's a feeling of empowerment, beyond all odds.

Tony Steidler-Dennison
The Roadhouse Podcast

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for checking in Tony.. I love the quote. Where can we find your podcasts?

Bookedit... I didnt get the chance to mention that I'm going to be editing an anthology of mystery stories soon... We're calling it "Chicago Blues!" So there you go.. both of our loves in one package.

Bob.. I can't wait to see how the documentary unfolds. And if you need a PA... you know the number!

Patry Francis said...

Long live the blues! Great piece.