Musical foundling. History of blues.

I waited for my next encounter with Maxwell Street and Chicago (the first in the August 2023 article) until I started my university studies. One day I learned that lectures on music history would be given by a young, ambitious assistant professor and that the subject would not be classical music, but something entirely new.

In the footsteps of folk music

The new lecturer really surprised us with his youth and enthusiasm. He directly physically embodied the model of the rebellious young man of the 1970s – through his original way of dressing, speaking and informal contact with students. What most distinguished him from other lecturers, however, were the places he took us to during his captivating lectures. These were places on the map that no one had mentioned before in academic lectures. Our young lecturer invited us on a journey in the footsteps of American folk music, specifically country, blues and gospel. This journey took us through New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Nashville, Kansas City, Saint Louis, and Chicago, i.e. from the deep, agrarian South to the great cities of the North, i.e. where African-Americans emigrated en masse, where jobs and a receptive audience were longing for their music and every substitute for an abandoned family home.

Nameless musical foundling

Country, gospel and blues were the three main currents of American folk music. They did not develop autonomously but interpenetrated and complemented each other continuously. The distinguishing feature of the blues was not only its African origins, but also its incredible receptivity to all musical influences present on the American continent. Inspiration was drawn from English religious hymns, Irish and French folk songs, German polkas and Italian arias. Blues attempted to imitate the sounds of nature and human activity, such as the sound of a moving train or the rhythm of pounding hammers. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the result of this mixture was a piece of new music – sensual and vital, even though it was considered by many to be a “nameless musical foundling” because it was anonymous, without pedigree or class. The blues was a ‘sung speech’ dictated by the emotions and feelings of the singer, a vehicle and form of expression of sadness or joy. It was mostly a sentimental story, a form of Black American folk poetry.

A bitter tale

The blues was a companion to hard work on plantations, farms, road and railway construction. It most often sounded bitter tales of love, fidelity, loneliness, freedom, historical injustice and racial inequality. The instruments of country blues were mainly guitar, mouth harmonica, homemade percussion instruments, clapping hands or any other object making rhythmic sounds. Over time, brass instruments and even the piano began to appear in musical groups. The apostles of the country blues were itinerant musicians who performed on Saturday nights in villages, towns or encampments near plantations, factories or construction sites, where they gave weary workers brief moments of joy and forgetfulness of the cruelties of fate.

Black people dancing to blues
Mississippi, Saturday Night Fever. © Library of Congress

This was not music that was accepted by the African-American community as a whole. The conservative part of it associated with churches of various denominations considered the blues to be the work of the devil and an expression of satanic tendencies in some, especially young, people.

According to one colourful legend, the journey of modern blues into the so-called ‘big world’ began at the junction of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49, in Clarksdale (Mississippi). Allegedly, this is where Robert Johnson, the first blues superstar, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his mastery of the music genre.

According to another, even more fanciful legend, ‘someone’ with divine powers saw to it that U.S. 61, the main road to the north of the U.S. and thus leading to where the great emigration of African Americans was heading, was as simple and quick to traverse as possible. It is not known to what extent the hand of God applied its power to the work of construction, but U.S. 61, later known as Blues Highway 61, between Clarksdale and nearby Tunica, did indeed become the world’s longest stretch of road (48 km) without any curves. The road was straight as an arrow and led to nearby Memphis (Tennessee), the first stop for the ‘urban’ blues and an important junction on the way from New Orleans to Chicago.

The "Devil's Crossroads" sign in Clarksdale, a prominent home to old-time blues music in the Mississippi (River) Delta region
The "Devil's Crossroads" sign in Clarksdale, a prominent home to old-time blues music in the Mississippi (River) Delta region ©Highsmith, Carol M., Library of Congress

On the road to a new world

During the years of the Great Migration (1910-1970), millions of Black Southerners spent their last savings on train tickets from The Illinois Central Railroad, which enabled them to travel to the industrialised cities of the North. They all believed that there they would get the chance to lift themselves out of poverty and achieve success in life and personal freedom. On the very first day of their journey, they could tell that they were on their way to a whole new world. When they boarded trains in Louisiana or Mississippi, they were forced – due to Jim Crow laws – to crowd into carriages designated for “coloureds”. When they reached the final station in Chicago, they were entitled to occupy a seat in every carriage, without exception, together with White travellers. The humble baggage Black farmers and workers brought to the big, noisy and dynamic cities was the culture of the rural South and what was central to it – their own music, the vibrating blues.

The name ‘the blues’ probably comes from the 17th-century English expression ‘the blue devils’ describing an intense state of hallucination after consuming more alcohol. Over time, the expression, shortened to ‘the blues’, came to mean a state of agitation or depression. One of the most famous songs by the aforementioned Robert Johnson seems to confirm this theory. The song ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ tells the story of a man being woken up at dawn by the devil knocking on his door, telling him that ‘his time has come and he needs to hit the road’. Paradoxically, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ was the last song recorded by the legendary twenty-seven-year-old Johnson. A year later, in August 1938, he died in circumstances that remain unexplained to this day.

Mural of Mississippi jazz musician Robert Johnson in Clarksdale, a music center in the Mississippi Delta
Mural of Mississippi jazz musician Robert Johnson in Clarksdale, a music center in the Mississippi Delta, © Highsmith, Carol M., Library of Congress

Street evolution

From the beginning of the 20th century, the blues was heard in Chicago. At first in the poorer, southern and western parts of the city, places where black immigrants working in steel mills, factories and large loading stations mostly settled. Over time, the original Delta country blues began to mix with new trends developed not only in Chicago but also in other major Midwest cities: Memphis, Kansas City, and Saint Louis. The evolution of the blues took place in the streets, backyards and in the growing number of music clubs, which at first had a very local character. For the most part, these were small, run-down venues that could barely accommodate a band, a bar, an owner and a few guests. Such venues experimented with music brought from ‘home’.

Maxwell St. artist and on lookers. Sunda
Maxwell St. artist and on lookers. Sunday, © Cushman, Charles Weever, IMLS Digital Collections & Content

Each musician tried to distinguish himself and tried innovative techniques and ways of expressing his musical ideas, which, over time, looked less and less like the originals brought from the South. Music also resounded in private dwellings (e.g. Howlin ‘Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter), small recording studios, often also the place where records were sold (e.g. Grand’s Photo-Record-Sweets Melody Lane Record & Music Shop, Savoy Record Mart), or in the professional but still modest studios of record publishers – such as Parrot Record, Chess Record or Abrams’s Ora Nelle Records.

In an urbanised hell

The blues sold well and was a commercial success, but it was no longer rural ‘the Devil Blues’, but a raucous Chicago Style reflecting the dynamics of the modern city. There was a shift in optics – a shift from the problems of the ‘deep South’ to the drama of survival in the new urbanised hell, as industrial Chicago was considered to be at the turn of the 20th century.

However, the blues and its musical apostles had a problem reaching a wider audience, especially those with a different life background, a different race or a different social status. The solution to this problem was to be found in Maxwell Street, the largest public open space, visited daily by tens of thousands of people of every skin colour, faith and ethnicity. It was a unique urban oasis, a place that escaped all the divisions that existed in the city.

Formal racial segregation, such as in the US South, did not exist in Chicago, but racial divisions, especially where they lived, did. On Maxwell Street, Black musicians were able to interact with audiences that would never have visited their clubs or dance halls on the South or West sides of the city. People of many races and nationalities lived in the city, but all groups guarded their borders. Chicago was not racist, but racially segregated. The city could ‘boast’ of being the most racially and ethnically segregated place in the US.

The foundation of Chicago blues

In 1947, a seventeen-year-old Little Walter decided to record his first album in the Maxwell Street-based music shop Abrams’s Maxwell Radio. At that moment, unaware of his originality and talent, the musician created a new canon of urban blues. This recording and its follow-ups in the following years were part of building the foundations of the new music. Little Walter’s earliest existing recordings resonate with the distinctive rhythm and melody of urban blues. His mouth harmonica playing in particular has become synonymous with the music we know as ‘Chicago blues’.

Maxwell Street shopkeepers, wanting to attract as many shoppers as possible, lent street musicians space in front of their premises and allowed access to the electricity grid. The musicians plugged their instruments into amplifiers and electrified their blues. The new electric music sounded fresh and dynamic. Maxwell Street thus became a testing ground not only for new ideas on how to make money in commerce but also how to create new ‘urban’ music – one that cut through the noisy voices of shouting vendors, shopkeepers, haggling customers and the loud admonitions of street preachers.

Pilgrimages to the city

From the great Chicago, it was already relatively close to the musical metropolises of the world. The fame of the new music spread rapidly across the globe, reaching especially the revolted young Europe. But it was not only Chicago bluesmen who were couriers of the new music. Musical pilgrimages to the “Windy City” began, to listen to its new rhythms and melodies. And these played on Maxwell Street or in similar venues, were simple, raw and dramatically intense.

A whole early generation of British pop and rock ‘n roll groups frequently visited Chicago and Maxwell Street, where they bought up whatever the local record companies produced. Looking for blues inspiration, the newcomers sat day and night in music clubs not only on the south and west sides of Chicago. The growing popularity of the blues led to a veritable rash of music clubs in the north of the city as well.

Clubs, recording studios and concert halls in Chicago in the first half of the 20th century.
Clubs, recording studios and concert halls in Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. © The Chicago History Museum

Reproduce and imitate

The Rolling Stones musicians had a special relationship with Maxwell Street. Not only did they take the name of their group from one of Muddy Walters’ songs, but they also listened to and tried to emulate the rhythm, form and performance of the street blues. The best example of this influence is taking from Carrie Robinsons, the legendary blues and gospel singer (who performed on Maxwell Street from the early 1940s to the late 1970s), the choreography from her ‘sacred dance’ to the song ‘Power’. The same dance, performed by Mickey Jagger, later became one of The Rolling Stones’ recognisable trademarks.

Carrie Robinson – Power To Live Right [Colourised] 1964

Bars of new music – Chicago Electric Blues – were recorded on albums by musicians forming the so-called ‘British musical invasion’. The name was adopted after a series of concerts by British groups in the USA, including The Beatles, The Animals, and Herman’s Hermits.

By the 1960s, the blues was already a solid brand of music that was co-creating contemporary trends. As early as 1958, the famed New York Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, performed a concert whose highlight was William C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”. It was a symbolic moment of official recognition of the blues, a music that only a few decades ago was called a “nameless musical foundling”. Now it was no longer anonymous and was inspiring broad masses of musicians. It began to be reproduced and imitated. Its influence can be seen in many later forms of young music such as hard rock, heavy metal and punk.

Of course, the enthusiasm was not shared by everyone. The music critic Cliff Prine in 1961, in his article on new music, extensively discussed all musical forms originating from African-American culture. It is puzzling, however, that in the few pages of the article in which the author was engaged in discussing every possible trend of jazz respected by all, the blues itself, as it took shape in Chicago, occupied literally a dozen lines of text. For Cliff Prine, the blues was not the future of music, but only the beginning of jazz that was already known and recognised worldwide.

"It" could be sold

A few years later, there was already a different tone in the descriptions and appreciation of the blues. It was then that it became the main subject of analysis by music critics. Musical idols became: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Fats Domino, Bill Hally, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and hundreds of other musicians who had often been active since the 1950s. To describe their work, they often spoke of soul, rhythm&blues, and rock&roll.  However, it was obvious that it was, after all, the blues that was the foundation of their new music.

This music did not require education or the ability to understand. It was not to be grasped with the mind. It was supposed to get directly to your feet and make you dance. It was melancholic, joyful and fun, and above all, it began to appeal to everyone.

However, to achieve the kind of global recognition that rock & roll, for example, already enjoyed, the blues needed a powerful promotional channel. It used to be radio and record labels. In the second half of the 20th century, television and so-called Hollywood helped to ‘sell’ the blues to broad masses of consumers. If one had to point to someone or something that gave the blues this coveted global popularity and acceptance, one would have to mention the musical group The Blues Brothers known for their appearances on the television show Saturday Night Live. Its television success from the late 1970s was sealed with a film production. In 1980, the film The Blues Brothers premiered, starring John Belushi (Jake Blues) and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues) in the lead roles. The film, which was a kind of comedy musical, managed to include an almost complete collection of classic blues songs. Within an hour and a half of watching this picture, audiences around the world were given a crash course in what the blues is all about. Almost immediately, the film, the actors, the musicians and the songs themselves were hailed as worldwide idols and hits. The cult status of this comedy continues to this day and is a tribute to the blues and a declaration of love towards the city of Chicago. This was in part due to the fact that it featured legendary musicians such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker.

Musical "boom boom"

In one of the film’s scenes, The Blues Brothers can be seen passing through Maxwell Street A crowd of people were overflowing the street, and there was intense trade on the stalls and pavements. The target of the visit of the film’s Jak and Elwood Blues, however, was not the market but Nate’s Delicatessen (named Soul Food Café in the film), a legendary bar owned by African-American Nate Duncan, a place offering the best in the area… kosher food. This was no extravagance, but a simple continuation of a long tradition started by the previous long-time Jewish owner, Ben Lyon. Nate’s Delicatessen was no ordinary bar, but an important location for the Chicago blues. Improvised concerts were held both in front of the bar’s entrance and in the back of the bar (under the so-called ‘blues tree’). In the film, these practices were illustrated by the legendary John Lee Hooker with his hit ‘Boom Boom’, and the film’s owner of the Soul Food Café (played by Aretha Franklin) sang one of her biggest hits, ‘Think’.

Credit: BluesyGibby

After the release of the film The Blues Brothers, fascination and public interest in the blues literally exploded. The film became iconic and so did the music and the individual performers. It was of global interest to the broad masses of the public, not just a relatively narrow group of sophisticated, musical connoisseurs. Everyone loved the blues and almost everyone tried to emulate it. With its simple musical structure and catchy melodies, the blues found imitators in places as far away as Chicago.

A simple prescription

The results were not always impressive. A humorous summary of the blues craze, which basically continues to this day, can be found on Uncyclopaedia – a website parodying Wikipedia. Most of the descriptions and definitions have little to do with realism, but it has to be said that a grain of truth can be found in every description. Thus, in the entry “How to play the Blues” you can read the following advice:

  1. Start with a depressing introduction, such as: “My woman left me for some fat amphibian” or “I woke up this morning with a monkey on my face” or “I’m so depressed I couldn’t wake up this morning”.
  2. Don’t start with the lines: “I am so happy to dance” or “Honey, you look beautiful tonight” (…).
  3. Blues is simple. The first line is about something bad that has already happened, the second line confirms the words about life’s misfortunes, and the last line rhymes with the first two statements about the doom that hangs over life. All you have to do is pick two words from the rhyming dictionary and then write a blues verse. The blues is not a matter of skin colour. It is a matter of bad luck. Oprah can’t sing the blues. Gary Coleman could. Ugly white people also got permission to sing the blues.

The victorious march of the blues, both the original and the millions of reworkings and plagiarisms, has for many people become the soundtrack of their lives and the indisputable musical foundation of pop music. The blues’ road to widespread recognition has been long, complicated and painful. One of the main transfer stations on the road from the Mississippi Delta to the consciousness of people all over the world was the cobblestones on Maxwell Street.

Today, silence has fallen on this famous street and the place of the spontaneous music scene has been taken, for better or worse, by digital media. What has not changed is the love and longing for something capable of soothing loneliness, explaining sadness or expressing joy and satisfaction. Exactly as it used to be on street corners, today on the pages of YouTube people confess their problems and hopes, and one of the best ways to do this is with the good old blues.

“The family are upstairs. I’m in the basement with an old friend; he has a Gibson, and I have a Fender. We get together once a month, smoke pot and go through the record list. Sleeping dogs warm our feet. There’s no denying that life is good.”

“It is one o’clock in the morning in my hometown in Brazil. It’s raining and dogs are barking. I’m listening to fantastic blues and I feel like I’m in heaven.”


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