This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Karen Hanson is a friend and colleague. When faced with questions about the blues, particularly which acts I should see when the Western Maryland Blues Festival comes to my town, she is my go-to person.
So when she wrote a book about blues I was excited for two reasons: First, I can read it and, hopefully, become less ignorant about blues. Second, I can repay the favor by helping her gain publicity for the book, titled Today’s Chicago Blues.
Karen is a free-lance journalist whose passion is blues music. She teaches writing and literature at a university in the south suburbs of Chicago.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I wrote the book because I knew there was a need for it. People from all over the world visit Chicago just to hear live blues. While information is available, it tends to be scattered and incomplete. My idea was to provide a comprehensive guide to everything in the blues, so that locals and tourists alike could explore the vibrant blues scene in Chicago.
What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
In addition to providing a usable guide for fans, I also hoped to raise awareness that Chicago is still the home of the blues. Often local residents overlook the cultural treasures in their own back yard. There isn’t a city in the world that has the depth and breadth of blues talent that can be found any night of the week in a Chicago club.
What is it about the blues that makes it such an enduring genre?
The blues addresses universal themes in life. We all know what it’s like to be lonely, rejected, betrayed and down on or luck. We all feel sexy, proud and ready to party. All these are common topics for blues songs.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the blues?
1. That the blues is a sad music. The blues started out as party music, and it still is. Not all the songs are sad, and even if they speak of hard times, you’ll notice that nine times out ten, in the end the singer overcomes or survives them.
2. That the blues is old and dead or dying. Yes, many of the great blues musicians have passed away. But we can say that about any genre. There will never be a Muddy Waters or a Howlin’ Wolf again, true, but there will never be an Elvis, or a Johnny Cash, or a Nat King Cole, or a Kurt Cobain. Yet those genres continue, as does the blues, with numerous musicians who are talented in their own way.
3. That blues musicians are illiterate, innocent, untrained, poor country folk. I doubt that was true for many bluesmen a generation ago. I know it’s not true today. The majority of today’s blues musicians are college-educated and have studied music and are as business savvy as anyone else.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Waiting for it to be published. First, I am a newspaper journalist, and I’m used to seeing what I write get printed within days. Secondly, the music scene changes quickly. Clubs opened, clubs closed, artists died, new ones came on the scene.
Do you think blues music gets the respect it deserves or is it too often marginalized?
It’s definitely and deliberately marginalized by media. Blues records don’t get played on popular radio shows. Even on the so-called “Jack FM” stations, where they supposedly play a variety of genres, you won’t hear any blues songs in the mix. Record label owners and musicians have told me that labeling a record “blues” is a like a kiss of death with radio programmers. Why? How can a music be rejected if it’s not even listened to?
At the same time, it’s difficult for blues musicians to get CD and concert reviews in major newspapers and magazines. On the rare occasion it happens, the writers focus on the already well-known blues musicians like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Not that these guys don’t deserve the attention – but the writers are overlooking the younger and new blues
musicians who also deserve coverage.
I won’t make you pick one favorite blues musician since that might be impossible. How about instead you tell us about a few blues musicians that you think everyone should know?
1. Lurrie Bell. He’s the son of harmonica great Carey Bell, who died recently. Lurrie’s played for years, but now at 48, he’s reached his prime. He’s clearly the most powerful and most innovative blues guitarist out there today.
2. Nick Moss and the Flip Tops. Contemporary Chicago blues that’s well-grounded in the Chicago blues tradition.
3. Li’l Ed and the Blues Imperials. Named “Band of the Year” at the Blues Music Awards last year. Great entertainment, great party music.
4. Nora Jean Bruso. Heir apparent to Koko Taylor’s title as “Queen of the Blues.” Powerful voice, incredible stage presence, prolific songwriter