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A Fading Legacy for Chicago Blues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The old men paused as they filed past Junior Wells’ coffin and glanced at the bluesman’s final show of splendor: his creaseless sky-blue silk suit and matching homburg, a shiny trove of harmonicas laid out beside him, a pint of gin nestled nearby to ease his journey home.

The 63-year-old musician had been “Junior” all his adult life, and now that the youthful peacock was gone, the mourners knew their own time was coming.

Two of them murmured low as they returned to the last pew of the South Side funeral chapel where Wells lay in state. As the hall filled, Sebastian Jordan and Henry Taylor caught up on lost years.

They had met in the late ‘50s, in ghetto bars where the rhythmic hybrid of Mississippi music and urban experience known as Chicago blues was born. The two had been out of touch. When they ran into each other last month at Wells’ funeral, it was a time to mourn not only the passing of one of their stars but also the way of life they once knew.

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“Junior was hardly a grown man last I saw him,” said Taylor, 77. “Tells you how old we are,” Jordan, 64, whispered back. “Too many gray heads around here, too many. One of these days, there won’t be none of us left.”

When Arkansas-born Arie McDavid, 50, heard that Wells had died, she threw on a fur coat and hurried to the funeral parlor to see the bluesman one last time. As she made her way past his coffin, McDavid remembered a night 30 years ago when a friend dragged her to an inner-city club to see Wells play.

McDavid had been aching from an aborted love affair, but “the moment I heard that man play, I just snapped. I hadn’t heard that sound since I was a child. It made me forget what I was crying about.”

This is a twilight for the Southern-born migrants who spawned Chicago blues--both the musicians who developed the distinctive sound and the black audience who nurtured the music long before it captivated white listeners and became aural wallpaper for beer commercials and film soundtracks.

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Chicago blues is now woven deeply into the fabric of American popular culture. But as its last generation of migrants passes into old age, there is growing concern about what will become of their legacy. Black businessmen are trying to revive Chicago’s inner-city blues club culture. Archivists are turning their attention to the post-war migration and the culture it spawned here--as a social movement deserving of preservation. But there is uncertainty over who should be the caretakers and what should be saved, who should provide funding and who needs it most.

“There’s a whole generation that we’re losing, and the great tragedy is that there’s no concerted, well-funded effort to tell their story,” said James Grossman, director of the Scholl Center for Family and Community History at the Newberry Library in Chicago. “I worry we’re already too late.”

Music Thriving Commercially

The dilemma is obscured by Chicago blues’ robustness as a commercial enterprise. The music is a more lucrative business now than it was during its high-water mark in the 1940s and 1950s. Elderly bluesmen who were once lucky to reap $10 a night at bars in poor Chicago neighborhoods now regularly tour the United States, Europe and Japan. Many still make records, and their classic old recordings have been continually repackaged, selling briskly to new generations of fans.

“It’s no longer a neighborhood music,” says Bruce Iglauer, who owns Alligator Records, the city’s dominant recording company. “But in terms of sales, the market’s the healthiest it’s ever been.”

Young Chicago-born musicians ply a good living at well-appointed bars in the uptown entertainment districts, playing for tourists and suburban blues mavens. And more than 660,000 fans flocked to a four-day blues festival last year, spilling into North Side clubs and pumping $54 million into the city’s economy.

Chicago blues’ reigning king is Buddy Guy--once a Young Turk, now a grand eminence at 62. A lightning-fingered Louisiana-born guitarist and singer who once was Wells’ stage partner, Guy sells hundreds of thousands of records and owns a thriving downtown nightclub. Despite his success, he is unnerved by the graying of bluesmen he once saw as “kids like me.”

“I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” he said as he left Wells’ rites. “We’re losing our best.”

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Guy and Wells prospered as the last wave of Southern-born musicians came north, arrivals to a community that “offered survival skills” for every migrant, says Adam Green, a professor of African American history at Northwestern University.

From 1942, when pressure from civil rights groups and the wartime need for workers opened up employment in Chicago’s packinghouses and steel mills, through the 1960s, when those factories closed, nearly half a million Southern blacks arrived. Crowding into the city’s poor South and West sides in enclaves of two-flats--houses split into two dwellings--the emigres from Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee mixed in a unique network, Green said, that allowed them to “resocialize themselves as they had in the South.”

Years after having acclimated to Chicago’s harsh winters and harsher political and racial climates, the musicians and their audiences drank, danced, loved and fought in the city’s black-owned blues bars. More than 400 blues spots, from swank supper clubs to basement holes-in-the-wall, thrived during the migration era, estimates blues researcher Scott Dirks.

“Any club you went into, you was bound to meet people from home,” says James Wheeler, 64, a blues pianist who calls himself Piano C. Red. Since emigrating from Montevallo, Ala., in 1952, Wheeler has driven a cab by day and played in clubs at night.

End of Line for Blues Clubs

As the movement north slowed to a trickle in the ‘60s, South and West Side blues clubs winked out like exhausted stars. The causes were myriad. Construction on the Dan Ryan Expressway bulldozed a vital South Side commercial strip. Blacks began shopping downtown. Musicians’ unions cracked down on bluesmen who failed to pay dues. Violent crime scared off older patrons.

But in the end, musicians, bar owners and their migrant audience simply grew old.

Fewer than a dozen black-owned blues bars now cling to life on Chicago’s South and West sides. Old customers drop in sporadically. They are more apt to meet in parks and on street corners--and in sad reunions at blues funerals.

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Once a week, a group of retirees drifts into the garage at the A.A. Raynor funeral parlor. They are there to catch up with Don Anderson, 64, a hearse mechanic who “ratted around” with them 40 years ago at clubs like Theresa’s and the 708 Club--now all gone.

As he tinkered with the hearse that carried Wells home, Anderson reminisced with his Mississippi-born cousin, John Berry, 69, about watching blues legends Elmore James and Howling Wolf. They cackled about “the times we had and the trouble we caused.” But both men gave up the clubs, Anderson says, because they “cost too damn much and the druggies rob you blind when you step out the door.”

At the Cuddle Inn, one of the last black-run clubs, former owner Tommy Thompson, 74, wonders whether his successor can revive the bar’s fading blues scene. Thompson’s decision to sell out last year to Milt Flournoy, a 40-year-old mail carrier, was a small passing of the torch.

Good intentions may not be enough to keep the blues alive there.

Over 30 years as a club owner, Thompson--a former sausage plant worker from Jackson, Miss.--cultivated so many connections “from back home” that he was asked to host political dinners for the late Mayor Harold Washington, whose support from black migrants was crucial.

Thompson’s links to Mississippians who lived nearby allowed him to “sit back, stir a pot of red beans on the stove” and simply wait for musicians and neighbors to show up.

It is not so easy for Flournoy. Few “name” bluesmen play South Side clubs, because uptown bars pay $500 and more a night, which forces Flournoy to scout around to find bands willing to play for less. His audience of mostly middle-class black blues lovers drive in from the suburbs. “I don’t get too many neighborhood people in here,” he admits.

He upgraded his club with sparkle wall paint and mirrored disco balls. But without the cash flow of uptown clubs, he has to cut corners. The bar’s cracked front windows are covered with duct tape.

Flournoy and other bar owners along 43rd Street were excited by recent talk that the City Council might establish a historic blues district--the first step in a long-awaited creation of a South Side entertainment center.

But they were stunned to learn that the proposal bypassed their street. Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman wants the district located along 47th Street, a strip with no active clubs. If 43rd Street becomes the blues district, places like the Cuddle Inn and the Checkerboard Lounge might get some financial aid. But if it shifts to 47th, new clubs--likely owned by uptown interests--could siphon off the last of the old clubs’ patrons.

A mile east on 43rd Street, 84-year-old David “Honeyboy” Edwards--one of the last living links to Chicago blues’ Mississippi Delta origins--rouses himself out of his basement apartment several times a week and drives over to a park near the elevated railway tracks to seek out old friends.

A few nights a month, he plays at uptown clubs. But when his spirits are up, Edwards drifts back in time, taking his guitar over to the Root Inn, a neighborhood joint, and playing for pals like “back in the old days.”

Venerated by Chicago’s aging bluesmen, Edwards has lost a stageful of friends and rivals.

As a teenager, he returned to Mississippi from a road trip to see the freshly dug grave of Charlie Patton, a gravel-voiced minstrel who first popularized Delta blues. Edwards was on hand when Robert Johnson, the most legendary figure in the music’s history, was poisoned in a Greenville roadhouse. After moving to Chicago in 1956, he took his place among the mourners for road partners and performers like Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton and Muddy Waters.

But lately, intimations of mortality have come too often. The day Wells’ hearse rolled through South Side streets, Edwards stayed home.

“I’m tired of going to funerals,” he said. “It hurts too much.”

Unlike aging bluesmen who withdraw into silence, Edwards is leaving a public legacy. Last fall, aided by two writers, he narrated his life story in a book, “The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing.” The account is a rarity--a firsthand oral history of blues culture from one of its major figures.

“Honey’s memory is astounding,” said collaborator Janis Martinson. “But he’s just one man. You start to realize how many other bluesmen here haven’t even been tapped yet--and how many more we’ve already lost.”

The problem in Chicago is not a lack of interest.

Blues museum projects have been announced repeatedly in recent years, only to founder without start-up money. The family of the late Willie Dixon, who wrote scores of songs, bought and refurbished the old Chess studios where Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf recorded as a tour site and home for a blues foundation. Small archival collections have sprouted up, housed in libraries, musical studies departments and black history centers.

But the collections are little-known to the public.

Oldest Archive at Main Library Branch

The city’s oldest blues archive is at the Harold Washington Library, the main branch of Chicago’s public system. Over 20 years, librarians have built a small treasury that includes videotaped performances of 40 blues artists, drawers filled with photographs and a piano once owned by Eurreal “Little Brother” Montgomery, a father of barrelhouse blues.

But the collection has never had a researcher. “We don’t have the money or staff to actively look for items,” supervisor Richard Schwegel says.

Efforts have sprung up to turn now-shuttered buildings such as Theresa’s basement lounge and Muddy Waters’ old two-flat into city landmarks. But again, “it’s all talk until an angel with money shows up,” said Tim Samuelson, architecture curator for the Chicago Historical Society.

A growing cadre of scholars of Chicago’s blues culture says that only an organized effort can undertake oral history projects and sift through archives before precious items are lost to the ages. “Right now is when we should be going after grants to do this work in a systematic way,” Green says.

The best option, according to Grossman, would be for one of the city’s major universities to create a “Chicago studies” department. “The question is whether anyone here is willing to make that kind of commitment,” he said.

Collection High Point for University

The University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture has amassed a wealth of archives and scholarship on Southern writers like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty--and convenes a yearly convention on “Elvis culture.” But its “pride and joy,” says acting director Ann Amadie, is its Delta blues archive, a 20-year-old collection that ranges from bluesman Elmore James’ taped telephone conversations to B.B. King’s private papers.

“We felt that this country’s blues culture is something you just don’t throw away,” Amadie said.

Chicago’s small collections struggle along with monetary donations from local record firms and other well-heeled blues businesses but “not as much as you need to do the job right,” said Ralph Metcalf Jr., a longtime promoter.

While public troves languish, private collectors are hoarding Delta and Chicago blues artifacts as investments. Rare Robert Johnson 78 rpm recordings now sell for as much as $3,000. A Mississippi River casino opening in Johnson’s boyhood home in Robinsonville has spent a staggering $36 million, Amadie says, to snatch up old blues items for a riverboat museum.

“If you want historic materials accessible to the public,” Amadie says, “it makes a difference when they are held by a responsible institution.”

Yet Dixon’s family and others in the blues community insist that archives should remain in the neighborhoods where the music was born--not in “some college the people can’t get to,” said Arie McDavid, who plans to volunteer for the Dixon family’s Blues Heaven Foundation.

“I want my children and my grandchildren to know that sound too,” McDavid said. “I’m going to make sure they do.”

But even the appreciation of a new generation of Chicagoans will not replicate the world in which McDavid and a city of migrants learned to love their city’s blues.

“When the last of us go,” McDavid said, “this town will really have the blues.”

* R&B; LEGENDS SALUTED: The spotlight shone again on R&B; pioneers at a celebratory awards banquet. F1


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