21st century blues -- can an ancestral art form survive?

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You can't find the blues on radio very easily these days, unless you hunt low down on the dial in the small hours of the morning.

Same with TV -- a vast wasteland, as far as real blues is concerned.

Record stores -- remember those? -- no longer can champion the music as they once did. And while decades-old Chicago labels such as Alligator and Delmark ambitiously release recordings, they hardly can be heard in an industry that generates less than 1 percent of its sales from the blues.

Which has to make even the most ardent lover of the music wonder: Can the blues endure? And even if it does, will it remotely resemble the raw, gritty sound of its origins?

More than a few musicians still playing believe there's life yet in a music that opened the door to jazz and set the stage for rock and rap, hip-hop and R&B. But as the city gears up for the 28th annual Chicago Blues Festival, Friday through June 12, Chicago's blues artists know fully well that they face struggles.

"I had some big dreams when I got into this business," says Chicago singer Shemekia Copeland, at 32 one of the great hopes for the music, thanks to the sheer size of her voice and the majesty of her delivery.

"My big dream was to make blues music mainstream. ... I wanted to do it because I'm so passionate about the music. I love the music so much, and I think it has a right to be just as big as, say, country music is. But, unfortunately, we just don't have the resources."

Thus the blues exists on the margins of American cultural life, a quaint reminder of what once was, a sound with a colossal history, a diminished reality and a tenuous future. If the blues is as vital as Copeland believes, if the legacies of Robert Johnson and Son House and Charley Patton (and scores more) are to endure, the blues has to be heard.

See more Chicago blues photos

Shemekia CopelandBut the infrastructure of music in America -- the ways in which sounds are disseminated online, through the airwaves and via cable -- gives little push to any musical genre that doesn't already command massive sales. A music as steeped in history as blues does not fare well in this setting.

"Why is the blues marginal? Because in America, everything is about what's new, what's new, what's new," says Copeland, daughter of the late blues-guitar master Johnny "Clyde" Copeland. "They don't respect old people, they don't respect anything old. And it irritates me when I go to other places (such as Europe) and I see how they treat things, and how much they respect things.

"Here, it's like: Who's got the new album? Who's got the No. 1 thing? When's the new iPod 6 coming out?"



CHICAGO BLUES -- NOW
This is the first segment in a four-part series about the Chicago blues scene.

Part 2: Blues 101: A new generation tries to learn | Photos | Video
Part 3:
Playing the blues in black AND white | Photos | Video
Part 4:
Is this the twilight of blues music? | Photos | Video



If Copeland sounds piqued, perhaps she has a right to be, for she's fighting for a monumental musical legacy practically ignored by the country that produced it.

Like Copeland, veteran Chicago singer-harmonica player Billy Branch -- a generation older -- also bristles at the neglect accorded this music, which is why he has been bringing it into the Chicago public schools for more than three decades. His Blues in the Schools program has introduced songs of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Big Walter Horton to kids who otherwise wouldn't hear them.

"It's about cultural heritage -- that children don't know their past," says Branch, 59. "I have talked to every ethnic group on the planet. I've even done Blues in the Schools in Japan.

"But in the case of younger African-American children in the inner city, they have very little to hold on to, and a lot of times they come in, their heads are down and they look sad. This isn't all the time or across the board. But the main thing I try to impart to them is that this is your people's music, and without this there would be no Beyonce, there would be no Michael Jackson.

"This is something to be proud of. Your people gave birth to this music we call the blues."

The reason that knowledge matters, says Branch, has to do with the way race and blues have been inextricably intertwined in American history. The blues blossomed from the bloody fields of slavery. Ever since, the blues and the culture that created it have fought mightily to be heard.

"Willie Dixon sent a mimeographed letter to every member of Congress ... (saying) there was a conspiracy to keep the blues off the radio," recalls Branch, who toured and recorded with Dixon for years.

"His reasoning was this: If it becomes apparent that my music is just as rich or valuable as your music -- or even more so -- then what basis do I have to discriminate against you?

"So he linked the culture and discrimination and social injustice to the lack of airplay of the blues. Which was pretty deep.

"Willie also used to say that we were fooled into believing that blues was low-class and dirty, lowdown music."

Indeed, the connotation lingers, notwithstanding the glorious vocal chants of Son House, the mysterious incantations of Robert Johnson, the excoriating cries of Muddy Waters. Because this music wasn't written down, wasn't played by symphonic instruments and didn't conform to the rules of European composition, it was deemed innately different, unimportant, inferior by the American culture industry of the early and mid-20th century.

"It still doesn't get the respect that it deserves, not by a long shot," says Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, 76, a blues giant who came to Chicago from the South in 1950.

Even in Macon, Miss., where Clearwater was born, the blues carried dark connotations.

"My grandparents called the blues the devil's music and wouldn't let me listen to it on Sundays because it was a sin," Clearwater once told the Tribune. "How could something that feels this right be the devil's music?"

Nonetheless, more than half a century later, "the blues has a real stigma," says Clearwater.

"The kids say, 'This is the music that my grandparents listened to, my forefathers.' And they want to think, 'We're more hip than that.' It's a shame, because this is our heritage.

"At a very young age, I was in the South and I used to hear the (country) blues. I used to hear my uncles singing blues while they were working in the fields, and I would ask them, 'What does that song mean?'

"It's about the human condition they were singing, while working and plowing and picking cotton and pulling corn. ... Sometimes it would be one person singing, sometimes a bunch of ladies picking cotton would be singing as a whole group, like a gospel song, like a chanting. It would sound so good -- you could hear it from a distance."

From these roots -- and from the ancestral African chants that preceded them -- a singular American music developed, with Clearwater among its surviving exponents.

But Clearwater and his colleagues are quick to acknowledge that the music and its audience inevitably evolved since those earlier eras, in ways great and dispiriting. The acoustic sounds they brought from the South became electrified in Chicago, speaking with a bigger voice in a noisier urban setting.

Meanwhile, the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, the proliferation of high-rise tenements and the traumas of "urban renewal" decimated South Side neighborhoods and much of the area's blues scene.

By the 1970s and '80s, a young, white audience discovered the music, supporting a new wave of North Side clubs, such as Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S.

Nearly two generations later, the audience has fundamentally changed.

"It's probably white folks in their 50s," says Copeland. "People who grew up listening to the Stones and the Beatles, and because of them were introduced to Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf and they found out about the blues that way."

Which raises an uncomfortable question for the music: If the audience has gotten older and whiter, if the sound has become increasingly defined by hard-driving, high-decibel rock, will the blues still be the blues?

Depends on your definition of the term, of course, but so far as the roots of the music are concerned, the lack of a mass following may be a saving grace. For as long as a few lone voices -- such as Copeland, Branch, Clearwater, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and others -- stay true to the music's core values, there's hope.

"I don't have these crazy ideas of being a pop star," says Copeland, in explaining why she still draws primary inspiration from Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, Etta James and other icons of earlier generations.


CHICAGO BLUES -- WHO WE LOST
The Chicago blues scene lost some very important people in 2011:
Hubert Sumlin
David "Honeyboy" Edwards
Pinetop Perkins


"I didn't get into the music for that. ... I see people doing crazy things to get attention. When you have to take your clothes off, that's ridiculous," she adds, with characteristic defiance.

"Blues aren't going anywhere, as long as somebody knows how to play 'em," singer-guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards, 95, once told me.

"That's the way I think about it. ... It ain't going anywhere, 'cause too many middle-age people know how to play the blues."

Too few listeners, however, have heard their art.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich



WHERE TO HEAR CHICAGO BLUES
Following are Chicago venues that feature blues on a regular basis. Some offer music on select nights, so it's always worth phoning in advance.

Artis's Lounge, 1249 E. 87th St.; 773-734-0491
Blue Chicago, 536 N. Clark St.; 312-661-0100
B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted St.; 773-528-1012
Kingston Mines, 2548 N. Halsted St.; 773-477-4647
Lee's Unleaded Blues, 7401 S. South Chicago Ave.; 773-493-3477
Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-342-0452
Water Hole, 1400 S. Western Ave.; 312-243-7988


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