Driving through Bronzeville now, it’s hard to imagine it as the thriving black metropolis it once was during its heyday when inhabited by the likes of Ida B. Wells, Duke Ellington, Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Armstrong.
That reimagining was part of the task of attendees of the fourth annual Blues and the Spirit Symposium, the only academic conference on the blues in the nation to reflect on the legacy of blues music in America, hosted at Dominican University May 30-31.
Early Friday afternoon, more than 20 participants who opted into a Blues Legacy Bus Tour boarded onto a Windy City Limousine parked on Division Street in front of the university’s Main Campus in River Forest. Setting the mood for the symposium, the group embarked on a journey to Chicago’s former blues district on the city’s south side.
Barry Dolins, adjunct assistant professor at Dominican and former director of the Chicago Blues Festival, led the tour.
One stop on the tour was the home of Muddy Waters, the father of modern Chicago blues, where impromptu jam sessions with pals like Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry would erupt in the front yard. The three-story home is considered Chicago’s original House of Blues.
A pang of the blues overcame the enthusiasts as they stood outside the legend’s North Kenwood home, which is now boarded-up and marked with a red X indicating a dangerous state of disrepair.
“They would never let the Beatles’ home look like that,” said Megan Graves, a recent Dominican University graduate, as she made her way back to her seat on the passenger bus.
Given that Muddy Waters was pivotal in the success of the Beatles, who like many other musicians and patrons were greatly influenced by and imitated his sound, Graves’ frustration is understood.
Chicago’s south side was vital to the development and dissemination of the modern blues and virtually every other music genre has flowed, in one way another, from this rich source.
Once bustling with black-owned businesses, the now blighted area features vacant lots, boarded-up buildings marked with red X’s, fast-food chains and an abundance of convenience and liquor stores. The Bronzeville blues have little to do with music these days.
Another stop on the tour was the famous “708” nightclub, which was the performing home of virtually all of the Chicago blues greats—including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. It too is now boarded-up.
Catering specifically to the entertainment tastes of the black population and considered Chicago’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater rendered a tremendous boost to the area’s Black culture. Driving down 47th Street, Dolins yelled out, “This is where the famous Regal Theater used to be.” The theater was razed in 1973.
In the midst of such historical destruction, walking through the doors of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which was the home of the notorious Chess Records, was uplifting and gratifying.
Famous for having entertained blues, R&B, soul, gospel and early rock and roll artists like Little Walter, Bo Diddley, The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and Koko Taylor, the Michigan Avenue location is a historic landmark. The tourists were visibly appreciative of the building’s preservation—their eyes lit with awe as they walked through the offices and studios where original recordings and history were made.
Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” at Chess Records. Etta James recorded “At Last” there. Being in that space was overwhelmingly nostalgic.
“The blues is alive and it’s growing,” said journalist and arts critic Rosalind Cummings-Yeates. “There just needs to be more discussion about what is happening in the community.”
The last stop on the tour before heading back to campus was Jim’s Maxwell Street Polish, where tourists enjoyed another taste of nostalgia as the aroma of grilled onions wafted through the air.
Now gentrified, Maxwell Street used to be a large open-air market, where many black musicians who had come to Chicago from the segregated South during the Great Migration would gather on corners to perform. The Chicago Blues sound is said to have originated in the Maxwell Market.
The symposium wouldn’t actually begin until later that evening—a couple hours after the bus tour group returned to campus. Janice Monti, Blues and the Spirit director and chair of sociology at Dominican, welcomed participants and Graves, who majored in theology, delivered the invocation.
“Dominican University sponsors Blues and the Spirit, which is the only academic conference in the United States that focuses on the legacy of African-American music and the blues aesthetic,” said Monti. “It’s like no other academic conference in the sense that it does combine the scholarly presentations, panels and keynote addresses with a lot of really great music.”
The first night of the symposium featured a panel discussion on “Documentation, Discourse and Directions for the Future,” followed by the biannual Blues and the Spirit Award presentation, which honored Delmark Records owner Bob Koester and the Scott Family. After accepting his award, Walter Scott and the World Band took center stage in the Parmer Atrium, delighting the crowd of scholars, musicians, patrons and fans with live entertainment.
“Our fourth symposium brought together a wonderful and eclectic group of scholars, researchers, writers, critics, musicians, fans and the general public,” Monti said. “This is a unique gathering of people, all of whom have an interest in the blues but come at it from very different ways.”
The next morning, things got rolling early when the 2014 Lund-Gill Chair Tricia Rose, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, delivered the symposium’s keynote address in the Martin Recital Hall.
“The state of the blues is giving me the blues,” Rose said.
Rose spoke of the devastating symbolic annihilation of black blues musicians today as part and parcel of a much larger issue of racial appropriation in this country.
“Nobody is excluded [from the blues], but you can’t ignore the gift giver,” Rose said.
“What’s beautiful about the first 40 or 50 years of the blues is that non-blacks who participated—whites and others—had to do very dangerous, race-line crossing work to participate, and so there was a sense in which one had to, at least partially, grapple with the reality of what race in structural America meant.
“But now, colorblindness has led us all to believe that we’re past that and that there is in fact no structural racism, and that we can extract the gifts of a given culture and a history and appreciate them without any self reflection on what it is we’re doing and what that work does.”
The hall exploded with applause after Rose’s address, and the subsequent Q&A morphed into a provocative discussion on race.
Blues diva Sharon Lewis rose from her seat in the audience to articulate her anger about what has happened to black blues musicians, who she believes the music belongs to. She argued that despite their technical training, white blues musicians, who now dominate the genre, could never play the blues properly because they are so disconnected from the black experience out of which the music was born.
The discussion continued throughout the day with panels on “The Blues Aesthetic and Contemporary Black Music,” “Southern Soul-Blues: Continuities and Impurities,” “Blues in the Media,” and “The Gospel Aesthetic: Pure and Fused.”
“One of the more encouraging things about the symposium is that it creates a dialogue that doesn’t stop once we leave here,” said Mark Camarigg, publications manager and assistant editor of Living Blues magazine.
Saturday night, the symposium concluded with a trip to Rosa’s Lounge, a local blues club on the city’s west side, where participants would unwind and enjoy the gift from the gift-givers.
“The blues is the backbone of American music,” Monti said. “There would not be an American popular music tradition—there probably wouldn’t be rock and roll if it weren’t for the blues.”
View more highlights from the symposium on the Blues & The Spirit Symposium and Facebook page.