ON opening night of the third annual Chicago Blues Festival, Chuck Berry opened the final segment by walking across the stage playing a typically ``lowdown dirty'' blues tune. His touch on the guitar had an electrifying effect. It brought the wildly cheering crowd to its feet. Hands were waving, and by the end of the program a lot of shirts were damp in spite of the cool, 60-degree weather at the Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park. The event itself was a hot one. For the next two days, shoulder-rubbing strangers became friends, and blues initiates became devotees. Whether it was the sizzling ``rough and tumble'' left-handed West Side (of Chicago) sound of Otis Rush on guitar, the full-throttle vocals of Memphis Slim, Artie ``Blues Boy'' White and Johnny Sayles's' ``funky, up-tempo foot burners,'' or the pithy piano performances of the West Coast's Jimmy McCracklin -- this year's festival was a gritty, down-home party, sponsored by the Mayor's office of special events.
Other headliner acts included Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Pops Staple and the Staple Singers, Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker, Dr. John, and the Neville Brothers.
More than lyric honesty and musical prowess are behind the popularity of this kind of music. The blues reaches into a collective history -- a present memory. It emerged even before slavery as something that's a part of most of us. Whether our forebears were the burdened or the burden, the blues arouse a feeling of recognition.
``It's a message from the heart,'' says Lisa Shively, publicist for the festival. ``It's deeply felt music that has to be experienced.''
Ms. Shively would like to see ``the same respect and money given to blues artists as to the rock and rollers,'' such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who gave a surprise performance with Chuck Berry one night.
``Most of the white rock and roll,'' Shively states, ``comes from the black blues. And the pop performers pay homage and have a lot of respect for the black blues artists, but somehow the general public has not caught on.''
While Shively believes there is now a ``healthy and growing interest'' [in the blues], she adds that, for the most part, blues performers lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Many are on the road some 250 nights a year.
``Making a record isn't enough,'' Shively says. ``They've got to go out and promote it.'' This year, singer B. B. King spent 300 nights on the road.
What comes of all this traveling? Certainly not overnight success stories. Chuck Berry is but one legendary example. He is the man known as ``the father of rock and roll.'' Elvis Presley considered him a mentor. Yet according to observers, Berry now shrinks from the public eye in order to write the story of his career -- disappointments and all.
For Bill Dogget, who performs mostly on the hotel circuit, with a few trips overseas each year, ``being in the right place at the right time'' is what paid off ever since the beginning of his over-40-year career.
In an interview in the press camper, the Doggets and I discussed the blues and its influence on popular music.
``Depending upon the lyric,'' said Mr. Dogget, ``there are happy blues, too.'' To play them, he says ``just makes me feel good. Just to get a wee bit technical, I like the chord progressions of the blues. It's just a wonderful thing that W. C. Handy was able to come up with this idea of a 12-bar strain. [William Christopher Handy, who wrote the ``St. Louis Blues,'' set down his theories of the `earth-born music' in 1903.] You can do so much with it -- tell such a wonderful story -- in 12 bars.''
In a history of the blues titled ``The Devil's Music,'' by Giles Oakley, Booker White, a blues singer raised in Mississippi, makes this claim:
``You wanted to know where did the blues come from. The blues came from behind the mule. Well now, you can have the blues sitting at the table eating. But the foundation of the blues is walking behind a mule way back in slavery time.''
While the genre cannot be traced to a specific place and date, it is commonly acknowledged that the blues comes from the rural black South, and that it is an unadorned expression of everyday goings-on. This helps make for its universal appeal.
``The blues tells of the hardship, the happiness, and the ultimate joy,'' Dogget says. Dealing with universally shared experiences, the blues strips the hearer down to his private moments of reverie.
In the words of the man known as ``Honky Tonk'' Dogget, ``The blues will never die . . . as long as there are people who love you for what you are and the things that you portray.''