Wednesday , December 6 2023
"Today, Chicago is still a mecca for blues music, just as it was in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and so on."

Interview with Karen Hanson, Author of Today’s Chicago Blues, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part interview.

I wrote about the author in the first part. Since then I read the book and was quite impressed. Here is the second half of the interview

In the first part of the interview you referred to Chicago as “the home of the blues.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

The blues weren't born in Chicago, but they grew up here. In the first part of the 20th century, African Americans came from Southern states to find work in Chicago. They brought with them their culture and their music, the Delta blues. In Chicago the blues became electrified and urbanized.

It also became commercialized in a big way. A major blues label, Bluebird (a subsidiary of RCA), was operating in Chicago even before World War II. After the war, a number of smaller labels sprang up, including the Aristocrat Records, which soon became the major blues label, Chess. Chess recordings influenced the birth of rock and roll.

How does Chicago compare to other major U.S. cities as far as influence, history, and quality of its blues music?

As mentioned above, Chicago was home to several influential blues records labels. It was also the hometown of many major blues artists, including Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James… I could go on forever. (While most of these bluesmen weren’t born in Chicago, they did make their home here.)

Obviously other areas of the U.S. also played important roles in blues history, including the Mississippi Delta area, Memphis, Helena, Ark., the Piedmont region, New Orleans, St. Louis, and so on. But from early on, Chicago was the place to go if you wanted to make it big.

Why do you think Chicago is such a mecca for blues music?

Today, Chicago is still a mecca for blues music, just as it was in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and so on. First, the city has more blues clubs than any other city in the world. The city is home to several major blues labels, including Alligator, Delmark, Earwig, Sirens, and Blind Pig. The city hosts the biggest free blues festival in the entire world. And, more blues musicians live and work here than anywhere else.

What exactly does “got my mojo working” mean? I have an idea but please spell it out before I shout it back at another local blues singer?

A mojo is a good luck charm. It’s often associated with the New Orleans gris-gris (pronounced gree-gree). Physically, it can be a lot of things, but most often, a small cloth bag filled with various magic things like dried plants, ground up bones, and so. It’s tied to a cord and worn around the neck. Depending on the hoodoo spell, the mojo can be for luck, love, money, or so on.

Symbolically, mojo is any kind of luck. “Got my mojo working” means you’re having good luck attracting women (or men, if that’s your preference).

How does race factor into blues both in the past and in the present? The stereotype, or at least my stereotype, is that it’s a traditionally black dominated culture but many of the blues singers who are younger seem white.

The blues originated as an African American music, but it’s been embraced by all cultures around the world. It’s true, there are a lot of white blues musicians these days, and a lot of white blues fans. But it’s absolutely untrue that blacks have rejected or abandoned the blues, as I hear some people say. I don’t know what it’s like in other cities, but here in Chicago, blues musicians and fans come in all colors and ethnic backgrounds, and that includes black.

In terms of age, in general, young people aren’t interested in the blues. It’s a kind of music that most people don’t seem to get until they’re older. And so, a “young” blues musician may be 40 or 50.

What did you learn by writing this book?

I was amazed at the depth and breadth of blues talent in Chicago. My book contains 84 biographies; I could have easily written three times that many.

My favorite parts were the tips for jamming (both for the musician and the fans), which I’m going to share with my local musician friends) and the part about the Chicago Blues Festival. Which part was your favorite?

I loved researching about the old blues clubs and record labels. There’s a rich history there just waiting to be delved into. And, of course, I loved visiting the clubs, seeing the shows, and interviewing the artists.

How did you decide which musicians and clubs to include in the book?

I included every club I knew about where the blues is played.

Selecting the musician bios was harder. As I said, there are hundreds of musicians. First, I limited it to people living or near Chicago. I chose mostly bandleaders, although I included a few more prominent sidemen. Then, I tried to pick those who were most active on the club scene.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my blog mostly.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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