What Is the Blues?

As a musician, I thought that I knew what the blues is.  But after a visit to Chicago, I don’t know.  I had thought that the blues was a feel, certain notes and often a stylized 12-bar chord pattern.  But after my visit to Chicago, I’m not sure that the blues is a matter of musical notes.

My first experience of Chicago blues was the House of Blues.  The walls of the Chicago House of Blues are covered with folk art.  The folk art was powerful, sometimes “abstract,” striking and soulful.  It affected me,  and set the tone for my experience in the club.  One collection of drawings had someone shot in every picture.  One woman had about 20 bleeding bullet holes in her.  There was a Santa Claus dead and bleeding from a gunshot.  There were other artworks that had smiles, grimaces, faces, figures–all carrying a heartfelt message.  In the upstairs concert hall, above the stage were symbols of many world religions with the words, “All Are One” in the central panel.  The stage of the downstairs club had red curtains with a large heart on fire on them behind the band.  The impression I had in the House of Blues was that I was in a shrine.  I even told my partner that this place was spiritual.  The music was part of this spiritual experience.  Heart.  Community.  Togetherness.

In Buddy Guy’s Legends, guitars were hung on the walls signed by the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, B. B. King, George Thorogood, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and other legends.  The MC who introduced the band worked the audience.  He asked where we all came from.  There were people from Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, England, Texas, South Side of Chicago, and other places all over the world.  As people in the audience called out their homes, the rest of us cheered.  The MC made jokes, warmed up the audience and brought us all together.  The music was communal, communion.  Heart.  Togetherness.  The music was part of the overall experience.

I live in Canada, and we have a good blues club here that brings in bands from all over North America and even Spain.  The music here is good.  As good as Chicago.  But we don’t have the bond of hearts I experienced in Chicago.  It’s more like an informal concert.  And I have never felt our club is a shrine.  I don’t know what the blues is.  It may be heart–soul.  Not good notes.

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CHICAGO

With Chicago’s manifold options

You can do almost everything

It is not a city—it is a world

And the world is represented in

Its population’s ethnicity

 

But it isn’t a world

Chicago is its own world

And if you lived here all your life

It would make you in the image of Chicago

 

Part of what makes Chicago, though

Is the Ethiopian cab driver

Who took us to the Lake Michigan beach

–the waves were large on the waters—

And the Jordanian cab driver who took us home

Both immigrants bringing their personalities other than Chicago home-grown

And the harmonica player with the French accent

Who grew up here with the mixed whites

And Afro-Americans who live here and

Some gave the world sounds of the blues

So there is always a fresh perspective

On the city and an opening outward

Of those few or many home-grown

But I didn’t see any Indigenous

 

I heard superb jazz in Chicago, though

Better in Westchester, PA, of all places

But the mix wasn’t good, echoes

The blues clubs in Chicago feel like shrines

Heart, community

Good blues, but not extraordinary, surprisingly

Chicago has history and lore

But not the legendary status of storied New York

I would make America’s cities:

New York, L. A., Chicago, and Boston

You could live your life in Chicago

Because it is as a world

In its manifold superb and variegated options