On Friday, June 13, over 500,000 fans are expected to converge on Grant Park for the 31st Annual Chicago Blues Fest. Billed as the world’s largest free festival, the three-day event draws music lovers from every walk of life.
But there is a sobering underbelly to the blues that goes far beyond “Wang Dang Doodle" or "Sweet Home Chicago.” It’s the simple fact that African-American acts often get the shaft when it comes to festival bookings or blues awards accolades.
While over 60% of the Chicago Blues Fest performers are African-American, this stands in sharp contrast to other nationally renowned blues festivals. The 23rd Annual WC Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival might be named after an African-American musician but only 33% of the acts on the bill are black. The numbers are even more anemic at other festivals across the country.
So why are the originators of this uniquely American musical genre singing the blues about being treated like second-class musicians? This was just one of the hot button issues raised during the two-day Blues and the Spirit Symposium held on the “far west side” at the bucolic Dominican University campus.
Entitled “Blues Impurities: A Symposium of the Legacy of the African American Music and the Evolving Blues Aesthetic,” this biennial event was the fourth held on the Dominican campus and the brainchild of Dr. Janice Monti., Director and Chair of Sociology at the University.
Monti said that the 2012 symposium was quite “provocative”—to put it mildly. It was then that many well-known blues musicians bared their souls about the inequities and injustices they have experienced during the course of their careers. While there were some cries of reverse racism, Monti noted, “You can’t talk about blues without discussing race.”
Working with the “impurities” theme, Monti assembled an impressive line-up of blues scholars, musicians, journalists, industry professionals and other “blues folks” to discuss the state of this American art form. The result was an extremely stimulating two-day session that had an “openness” that may have been lacking at the more contentious 2012 symposium.
As a Cheap Thrills Examiner who is open to just about anything, it turned out to be an incredible learning experience that provided a great blues bang for the buck. What follows are some of the highlights from the Symposium, which was held May 30-31.
Chicago Blues Legacy Tour
For an additional $35 (the entire two-day seminar cost a mere $75) attendees could hop on a Windy City Bus Tour for an illuminating ride back into blues history. The tour fittingly began at the intersection of Michigan and Roosevelt, where the Illinois Central railroad once stood. This was the embarkation point for millions of African-Americans during the Great Migration north. The railroad station was demolished but a commemorative marker now stands near the leg statues in Grant Park.
Following a quick tour of Chess studios, the bus wended its way all around Bronzeville,to drive by sites like the 708 Club and Checkerboard Studios where the blues once thrived on the South Side. This prompted one rider to note that it was a bit “depressing” to see all these former homes of the blues.
The tour also stopped at a true epicenter of the blues—Muddy Waters’ home at 4339 S. Lake Park Avenue. The home was once targeted for demolition and it was a bit of a downer to see an “X” on the residence where Little Walter, Willie Dixon and others once stayed and played. The home was recently sold to an unknown buyer but blues fans are keeping their hopes alive that the residence can honor Waters’ legacy in one form or another.
Friday Night Opening Panel and Spirit Awards Reception
Although Chicago might not make the most of its rich blues heritage, the state of Mississippi has honored its legacy with markers and profited from an influx of blues tourists. Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues Magazine and the current research director for the Mississippi Blues trail, noted that when compiling information for the markers– many in rural Mississippi towns,—they don’t sugarcoat the facts as there is the need to “present blues history honestly.”
One man who was witness to the most turbulent times is Mississippi history is blues researcher and collector Gayle Dean Wardlow who found Robert Johnson’s death certificate after a three year search during the height of the Civil Rights era. His book, Chasin’ the Devil’s Music –Searching for the Blues was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2006 as a classic of blues literature. A white sports reporter who sought out leads in segregated black neighborhoods Wardlow obviously relished doing his legwork but added that “everything is different now because of the internet.”
Following a robust discussion that touched on these topics and many others, Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records along with Chicago Blues and R & B staples, the Scott Family singers, received the 2014 “Spirit” awards from Donna Carroll, President of Dominican University. A reception and live music by the Scott Family followed.
Keynote Address by Tricia Rose
On a bright and early Saturday morning, attendees gathered to hear one of the leading lights in post civil rights era black culture, popular music and social issues—Dr. Tricia Rose. As the current Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, Rose also served as Dominican’s Lund-Gill Chair during the Spring 2014 semester.
Monti said that Rose quickly acquired “rock star status” on the Dominican campus and after hearing her address, it’s easy to see why. In a speech that alternated between brutal honesty and highly-quotable humor, Rose entertained and educated a rapt audience as she discussed the disconnect between white America embracing many facets of black culture while still hanging on to racial stereotypes, misunderstandings and misconceptions.
Rose added that, “America loves black music and culture but not so sure it loves black people.”
This is especially true with hip hop and blues as both genres came about through the need of African-Americans to have an outlet to vent their many frustrations. Rose contends that to truly understand blues one needs to accept the pain of the black experience that goes along with it. She underscored her point by stating, “You can’t accept the gift and ignore the gift giver!”
A complete video of Dr. Rose’s speech is available on the Blues and the Spirit Symposium’s Facebook page. It is highly recommended viewing for blues lovers and anyone else.
Reaching for the Light Photography Retrospective
The events on campus concluded with what Monti called a “Dominican moment” as attendees gathered at the O’Connor Art Gallery to view the late Susan Greenberg’s stunning photography of blues musicians. Tears flowed as friends and family discussed Greenberg’s love of the blues and how she helped turn her partner, musician Lurrie Bell’s life around after he seemed headed to certain self-destruction. He, in turn, helped her keep her sanity following the tragic loss of their infant twins. They later had a healthy baby girl, Aria, who attended the reception, which included an acoustic set by Jimmy Burns.
Reaching for the Light was the theme of the photography retrospective but this could just as well be applied to the symposium and the state of the blues in general. As Lurrie Bell said blues music “has a little light, it’s some light there, no matter how sad the song is. I believe it’s a gift from God music."