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Chicago Blues

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Chicago is on my mind.

How is it that some places, more than others, capture your heart? Like many who dream of the mesmerizing hum of New York City, I am enamored with Chicago.

Photo of Chicago skyscrapers engulfed in smog.

In Chicago, railcars rumble just feet above your head on open air tracks; their squealing brakes are a reminder of earlier century steam engines. I see a place that’s frozen in time as I walk through the city. I imagine the Speakeasy, alive and booming, while I’m sitting in the now updated restaurant. What blues artists must have entered through that side door?

As I travel through the city’s underground tunnels, I wonder what city architects envisioned while they were creating a dual level metropolis?

Many late recording artists and musicians once walked the streets of America’s Windy City, which is located on the southern banks of Lake Michigan. Some of America’s first successful blues recordings were made here. In truth, I wonder if it’s something about Chicago’s essence that created successful records. I speculate that the city inspired artists, and today I can see that it did, by listening to old records which illustrate unadulterated emotions expressed in vocal licks and instrumental solos.

There are a host of artists associated with Chicago’s jazz and blues scene. Take for instance, America’s “Empress of Blues,” vaudeville singer, Bessie Smith (15 April 1894 – 26 September 1937).

Bessie Smith
Full length portrait of Bessie Smith. Her right hand rests on her waist, and her left hand is raised in a waving position. She wears a big smile.

Bessie was born in Chattanooga, TN. As a young woman, she began traveling across America as a vaudeville singer. Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith were her contemporaries. In point of fact, Mamie’s successful recording of “Crazy Blues” in 1920 opened the door for female blues artists like Bessie to recording.

To learn more, I invite you to listen to the Music Section’s audio book, Coco [sic] Taylor, DBM01231 (available on BARD), a production of National Public Radio (NPR), hosted by B.B. King, in a segment titled, “A Listener’s Guide to the Blues.”

King highlights the importance of blues women: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Koko Taylor. Actually, this book is an interview with Koko. Her birth name was Cora Walton (28 September 1928 – 3 June 2009) and she grew up near Memphis, Tennessee. She loved chocolate as a child, and that love of chocolate is how she coined her nick-name, Koko. At the age of 24, she moved to Chicago for a better life and accidentally fell into the recording business. In this book, Koko shares intimate details of her life and her rise to fame. The interview includes musical clips of both her and musical influences like Chicago musicians Elmo James, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. When Taylor died at the age of 80, the New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR) called her “Queen of Chicago Blues.”

For Chicago blues in our braille music collection, Popular Music Lead Sheets (PMLS) is a great resource and also for blues in general. “Back Door Man,” recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in the ‘60s, and “Black Coffee,” recorded by many artists, namely Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, are included in a recent issue, PMLS No. 113, BRM36001 (available on BARD). It also includes the rock song, “If You Leave Me Now,” which is associated with the music group Chicago who formed during the 1960s in Chicago, Illinois, of all places.

In a song often credited to Robert Johnson, David “Honeyboy” Edwards said it best, in a performance at the Library of Congress in 1978, “… baby don’t you wanna go… [to] sweet home Chicago.”



  1. Good article just enough to whet the appetite.
    Chicago music could take up an entire series of blog articles.

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