Rollin' Up the River: The 30th Annual Chicago Blues Festival
BY: Dan Caffrey | Jun 6, 2013
If the blues was born in Mississippi, it certainly came of age and grew up in Chicago. The rolling basslines, the distorted harmonica and guitar—this is the sweet and sooty sound of Chicago blues music. It’s an aesthetic that evolved from the Great Migration, which saw tens of thousands of Southern African Americans migrate to the Chicago area and elsewhere by the mid-20th century. From Friday, June 7, through Sunday, June 9, the Chicago Blues Festival takes over Grant Park to track that journey from the Mississippi Delta to the Windy City. Friday, June 7: New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mississippi When blues music first formed in the Deep South, the instrumentation and lyrics were a product of the environment. The rusticity of acoustic guitar and harmonica captured the endless sprawl of swamps and farmland, and the tales of hardship were a reflection of the poverty faced by most African Americans in the region. The songs covered everything from economic turmoil to unrequited love and rough travel. Hailing from rural Mississippi, Muddy Waters cut his teeth on the Delta Blues until the Great Migration brought him to Chicago, where where he amplified his sound. The subject matter remained the same. But the music’s increased distortion and tempo captured the steeliness, as well as the fast pace, of the city. Born and raised in Louisiana, Friday-night headliner Bobby Rush also grew up surrounded by the Delta Blues—his father was a pastor who played guitar and harmonica. A young Rush initially took the acoustic route, but, as was the case with Waters and many other Southern musicians, he went electric once he moved to Chicago. Also joining Rush are two fellow Southerners—axe virtuoso Earnest “Guitar” Roy and Grammy-winning chanteuse Irma Thomas. Together, they’ll fill the Petrillo Music Shell with the spirit of New Orleans and Mississippi, while also demonstrating how blues music has evolved since first being shaped in the Deep South. Saturday, June 8: Chicago by Way of Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri En route from the rural, impoverished areas of the Mississippi Delta to denser urban centers, many of the Great Migration’s participants gravitated to the bright lights of St. Louis and Beale Street in Memphis. Both cities were steeped in upbeat forms of music—St. Louis being a popular site of piano-driven ragtime, and Memphis being home to jug-bands as well as the syncopated rhythms of early jazz. As a result, the blues musicians who settled here often blended their passionate guitar work with a sense of playful sweetness that would eventually be a calling card of R & B. One of these players was the legendary Lonnie Brooks, whose son, Ronnie Baker Brooks, headlines on Saturday, having followed the footsteps of his father and recorded most of his material along the Mississippi River. Memphis natives the Bar-Kays play later in the night. While considered by many to be more funk and soul than blues, they embody Memphis jazz’s offbeat rhythm and whimsy, with a hint of raunch thrown in for good measure. Sunday, June 9: Sweet Home Chicago The final night celebrates the city where traditional blues evolved into what it is today. Having moved from rural Mississippi to Chicago in 1950, Jimmy Johnson is living testimony to the Great Migration, and thus, the transition from acoustic to electric. He dances his fingers across the neck of his guitar with speed, soul, and grit. But like many modern blues artists, Johnson embraces a more polished aesthetic that’s risen as the genre has become more popular over the years. Mississippi-born harmonica player James Cotton is another transplant from the South and a Chicago blues legend, having first performed at Blues Fest in 1984. This year, Cotton leads an all-star finale at 8 p.m. The band showcases John Primer on guitar, Demetria Taylor on vocals, Felton Crews on bass, and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums, to name a few. The star-studded roster is a testament to Chicago’s influence on the blues, a genre that gave birth to R & B and rock ‘n’ roll. Just as the musicians behind the blues have traveled, so has the music itself, making its way overseas and revolutionizing the industry. But though the blues has never sat still, it will always have a place in sweet home Chicago, where, as Blues Fest proves, we continue to celebrate it as a thread of the city’s culture. In collaboration with Kelly Taylor.