The history of the blues, like that of the African-Americans who invented the music, is a story about migration from rural Southern towns to northern cities. And no city became as synonymous with the blues as Chicago. While CD compilations of Chicago blues fill the bins of music stores, there's one collection that has influenced the giants of rock 'n' roll more than any other. Jimi Hendrix had a well-worn copy; Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, and Bonnie Raitt treasure theirs. It is now available in brightly remastered sound and handsomely packaged for us all to savor.
Chicago /The Blues/ Today! (Vanguard), originally released as three vinyl albums, is for the first time offered as a box set. Produced by blues authority Samuel Charters in 1965, it captures nine blues bands at their peak. The 42 songs and instrumentals were recorded in a Chicago studio within tight budget constraints, yet sound as if they were captured on nightclub stages. What the bands, whatever their differences, share is a winning synthesis of country and urban blues styles. Many of these musicians migrated from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, trading in their acoustic guitars for electric, transforming softly acoustic blues laments into wailing Stratocaster guitar wails seasoned with loud, emotive vocals. In short, a critical part of the birth of rock happened through Chicago blues, particularly as artists like Eric Clapton imitated and then transfigured these sounds.
You can hear the essence of blues in the opening tunes by The Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band. The tense dialogue between Wells's pleading harmonica cries and Buddy Guy's nervously insistent single-string guitar runs in "Vietcong Blues" conveys the spunky spirit of the 1960s antiwar movement. Wells is compelling when he says, "This is dedicated to all of the wives and mothers of the brothers over in Vietnam." And he speaks for soldier and civilian alike when he concludes by singing, "Lord, forgive us for all our sins." While Guy and Wells, the best-known performers in this set, can be heard on numerous other discs, there is a relaxed simpatico in their interactions here that makes these recordings essential. In "Help Me (A Tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson)," Welles underscores his indebtedness to his blues ancestor, Williamson, with tartly vocalized harmonica solos.
At the heart of the Chicago blues sound is the electric guitar, slipping over notes with a gritty abandon that conjures up the image of the city that poet Carl Sandburg called the "hog butcher of the world." The sooty urban felicities of Chicago can be evoked by the slashing slide guitar of J.B. Hutto, who sings achingly of star-crossed love in "Married Woman Blues." Guitarist Johnny Shines in "If I Get Lucky" marshals his stinging blues guitar and powerful deep voice in testimony to the power of human endurance: "My baby's left me ... /but that's alright."
But blues are comprised of more than raucous lamentations. Otis Rush creates a guitar sound resonating with joie de vivre on the happily strutting instrumental "Everything's Going to Turn Out Alright." Even "Hey Hey," by the Johnny Shines Blues Band, which offers the typical complaining lyrics of "Baby, how can you treat me this way," carries an ecstatic subtext of survival. Musical expressions this timeless make the "Today!" in the title of this 35-year-old set as fresh as any of today's pop hits.
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