Friday, February 20, 2015

Black History Month: Chicago Blues

African-Americans from all over the South migrated Northward during
"The Great Migration" during the first half of the Twentieth Century.  The Illinois Central Railroad carried people from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis and then on to Chicago, where musicians played for newly employed factory workers in South Side clubs.

In Chicago, the blues grew from a soloistic medium to a group endeavor, with piano and "harp" (harmonica), and a more powerful electrified guitar often taking the place of the acoustic guitar.  There was often a saxophone in the mix.  Chicago blues greatly influenced early Rock n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues.

Muddy Waters
In 1947 Chess Records began recording blues musicians from Memphis and Chicago, including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. Radio play and the 1950s folk music revival disseminated the Chicago blues style around the world.  Young British musicians took to the medium and made the blues an integral part of rock 'n' roll.  The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream (fronted by Eric Clapton) covered many songs by Chicago bluesmen.

Chess Blues:
Compact Disc 11957

Robert Johnson, the quintessential Delta Blues musician who never actually lived in Chicago, composed "Sweet Home Chicago"  and recorded it in Texas in 1936.  It has become a standard of Chicago blues since then.  Even President Barack Obama sang it at a White House celebration of the blues (with Buddy Guy and B.B. King):

Some of the most famous performers are:

Muddy Waters (1913 or 1915 - 1983) grew up on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi under the influence of Son House and Robert Johnson.  He moved to Chicago in the 1940s and his influence continues to be felt.  His first recordings were made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.  In Chicago he recorded for the Chess Brothers on the Aristocrat label.  He is considered the "father" of Chicago Blues and is credited with the change from acoustic to electric guitar.  His 1950 song "Rolling Stone" inspired a young British Rock group to name themselves The Rolling Stones.

Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958) grew up in Arkansas, across the river from the Mississippi side of the Delta.  After moving to Chicago in the 1920s, he began recording with his acoustic guitar and changed to electric in the 1940s, but played acoustic for folk music revival tours of the 1950s.  He inspired other blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, as well as early rock and roll guitarists.

  • Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy  ML 420 .B78 H68 2010
  • Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs, recorded in 1958 by Moses Asch during the folk music revival of the 1950s.  Compact Disc 6324
  • Legendary Country Blues Guitarists (two songs).  DVD Video 11591

Willie Dixon (1915 - 1992) was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and moved to Chicago in 1936.  After World 2 he began recording for Chess Records and later became a producer for them.


Buddy Guy (b. 1936)   He was born in Louisiana and moved to Chicago in the 1950s.  He learned the blues on a diddley bow and later played guitar.   He was a session guitarist for Chess Records and broke out as a soloist in the 1980s.  Today he is one of the best-known blues musician, playing rock-tinged blues.  He has collaborated with Eric Clapton.

Albert King (1923 - 1992) was born in Indianola, Mississippi and spent part of his childhood in
Arkansas.  He moved to Chicago in the 1950s, but then left for St. Louis and finally settled in Memphis.  He influenced rock and blues guitarists alike.

In Session (With Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983)
Compact Disc 12022

Sonny Boy Williamson (The Second) (ca. 1912 - 1965) was born Alex Miller but known as Sonny Boy Williamson despite another well-known harmonica player having the name first.  He was born in Mississippi and traveled the Delta absorbing the blues sound.  He recorded for Chess Records' Checker Records label in the late 1950s and early 1960s.   He famously recorded an album with the British Invasion rock band, The Yardbirds, which featured Eric Clapton.

The Real Folk Blues
Compact Disc 12168

A Diddley-Bow
Bo Diddley (1928 - 2008) His stage name is a play on the diddley-bow, a folk instrument associated with the blues.   He is credited with transitioning blues into the rock idiom.  He is one of the famous blues musicians to record with Chess Records.

His Best
Compact Disc 15114

For more information, check out these books:
To hear more Chicago Blues performers, check out:
Soundtrack to "Chicago Blues" (1970)

Soundtrack to "The Blues Brothers"
Compact Disc 21975

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