The changing face of Chicago blues
Foreign-born players and whites pick up the slack creating a global appeal and expanded songbook.
Billy Branch steps off the stage and into the crowd, leaving his band to chug through a 12-bar blues. With a harmonica pressed to his lips, Branch sends light, flirty chirps to a woman, just inches from her face. For a single moment, the hundred or so people at Rosa's Lounge on Chicago's West Side fall silent.Skip to next paragraph
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The woman slips into the groove and joins Branch's musical conversation, and everyone around follows her cue.
Branch barks his biography – "I was born in the North, but my heart is in the South!" – and the band guns it. His heels spin to join them.
Here, on a Saturday night in October, it is a familiar conquest: Targeting lips to hips is what makes Chicago blues so enduring. But movement of a different sort, through geography and generation, is what also makes it deceptively complex.
That journey is threatening to jump the track. The music is largely silent in the Chicago neighborhoods where it originated, due to a shuttered club scene that moved audiences to the North Side, near the friendlier confines of Wrigley Field. But more alarming is the increased passing in recent years of aged blues luminaries, an inevitable loss of stories and techniques that connect the music to its fundamental roots.
Today, the Chicago blues scene is in stark transition. Younger blacks are failing to see the music as anything but a relic, leaving an entire tradition largely up for adoption by foreign-born players traveling halfway around the world to learn from the source. Their enthusiasm is helping move the blues from isolated neighborhoods to the global stage, evidenced by Chicago bands that very recently have come to resemble a United Nations portfolio.
This cultural exchange is expanding the music's songbook with stories it never addressed before and is helping create sophisticated players schooled as much in Van Halen and Led Zeppelin as they are in Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. But advocates worry that the flashy guitar tones and studied technique threaten to replace the personal expression that has long made the music profound.
In Chicago, blues music has always lived, not through television documentaries or books, but primarily through people – the Southerners who populated the city's South and West sides and who helped pass the music's foundation on to the next generation. For this reason, the blues has always been a collaborative pact between fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, the grizzled mentors and the eager young followers who sought them out, either from the other side of town or from as far away as Japan.
"There is a crisis," says Tony Mangiullo, owner of Rosa's Lounge, which marks its 25th anniversary next year. Mr. Mangiullo is a record keeper of this turning point in Chicago blues history; he keeps a database of musician deaths, which these days can be every other month. "If we keep losing those important links, it could be catastrophic."
Younger players may neglect in their playing what Eddy Clearwater calls "a spiritual thing." Clearwater arrived in Chicago from Birmingham, Ala., in 1950 when he was 15. (This fall, he released "West Side Strut" [Alligator], his 16th album.) In the '50s, an agent changed his last name from Harrington to Clearwater, a riff on Muddy Waters; Clearwater was honored.
"He's my all-time hero. He took me in. He used to call me son," Clearwater says.
Clearwater embodies the total Chicago sound. His polished performance style is what Waters helped shape on the South Side, but his guitar style – minor chords, gutbucket distortion, raw phrasing – is identified with Magic Sam, Elmore James, and others who developed the West Side sound and whom Clearwater listened to and watched as he grew up.