Hometown-of-Obama Blues

The music of Chicago — gritty urban blues — is famously about hard times, heartache and struggle. But practitioners of the genre may boast a refreshed if wary air of accomplishment this week, upon favorite son Barack Obama’s ascension to  Democratic presidential candidate. At least, that’s my thesis, which I’ll test by listening close to some of the 90 performances at the City-sponsored, free downtown 25th annual Chicago Blues Festival June 5 – 9 — and probably a slew of after-fest blues in neighborhood taps scattered around the toddlin’ town

There’s no evidence our post-racial candidate digs Buddy Guy et al, though Barack is on record telling CNN at a campaign stop in Creston, Iowa:

 ” the kinds of stuff that I love dancing to…I’m sort of of the generation of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire. . . I’m sort of hip to the younger stuff. You know, like Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love.'”

They’re good, yeah, but if The Man with the Big Ears is home this weekend he should check out Koko “Wang-Dang-Doodle” Taylor, harmonica master James Cotton with Texas guitar-strangler Johnny Winter, that great American B.B. King — all headlining at the Grant Park music shell — and/or lower-profile side-stage sets by the likes of the Rising Star Fife and Drum band and banjoist Otis Taylor. He would be welcome at the discussion of  the life and career of Louis Jordan, a rhythm ‘n’ blues star who transcended genre and race lines, in which I’ll participate with fellow author Bill Milkowski, Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, record producer-WBGO radio host Bob Porter, and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. I also recommend blues and boogie pianist Erwin Helfer, Sons of the Blues harmonica-man and educator Billy Branch, and delta blues avatar John Hammond.

Whatever its substyles, the blues represents bedrock native-to-the-States Afrological music that twined with old timey Anglo-Saxon strains to forge the fundimental repertoire on which almost all present day popular music (Latinized derivations excepted) is based. For decades Chicago blues suffered from unavoidable cultural conflicts, as some segments of the black community considered it the devil’s music, hopelessly old school or embarrassingly downscale, while others just embraced it as the local vernacular and white audiences took the form either as a measure of existential authenticity or just right for drinking beer to. 

Little of that has changed: the blues is a sturdy and adaptable music that can serve whatever expression musicians and listeners care to project upon it. Yes, it can be a powerful statement of distress and resignation — also a cry of victory and assertion of identity. Right now blues people (those who love the music besides those who play it) have something to be proud of: Barack Obama chose to live and work in the midst of Chicago blues, and now vies to lead our nation out of woe. Here’s hoping he perceives the world from the concrete, realistic but never completely downhearted perspective of this enduring music. Listen to Otis Spann, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and even Paul Butterfield, Senator Sir — the blues doesn’t offer a vantage point of privilege, but it does provide a glimpse of some tough, true things, and a bracing shot of reality just might cut through the frou-frou of distraction and denial, blow away the insubstantial entertainments that have brought us to this pass and inspire the genuine effort necessary to get beyond it. Feel me? Keep it real. . .

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