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Chicago Author Places Blues In The Great African-American Cultural Migration

David Whiteis, author of "Blue Legacy"
University of Illinois Press
David Whiteis, author of "Blues Legacy."

Author David Whiteis believes blues music and blues artists don't get proper recognition as part of the great African-American migration of the 20th century.

Blues Legacy Book Cover
Blues Legacy Book Cover

That's one reason he wanted to write what became "Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago." The book just out from the University of Illinois press highlights Chicago blues artists spanning a period from those who helped define the post-war era to today's "inheritors" of that legacy.

Whiteis also wanted to beef up the thin recorded history of how Chicago-based families and mentors bequeathed their music from one generation to the next.

“I wanted to show that what’s going on today is part of a living continuum that goes back generations that of course originated in the south,” said Whiteis via phone from his home in Chicago.

“It’s really part of that same epic story of the great migration,” said Whiteis, referring to the great African-American migration from the rural south to northern urban cities including Chicago.

He noted that migration and diaspora created much of 20th century American popular culture. But he’s concerned blues and the artists aren't a bigger part of that story.

“We hear about people of great Arts & Letters who came to Chicago, moved to Harlem, moved to Detroit, moved to the Midwest and California. And somehow this particular blues genre isn’t often included in that discussion,” said Whiteis.

So why are artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Koko Taylor, and others we now consider legends not considered seriously in this context? Whiteis believes the reasons are many, including white archivists and folkies who meant well.

“And I’m not criticizing people who went south and discovered people like Son House and Skip James, or those who discovered all those old 78s (rpm records) and realized there was a treasure trove of artistic expression here, but I don’t think they approached it from the same artistic and cultural standpoint that jazz historians and historians of literature and poetry and other ‘high art’ that discussed other aspects of this history,” said Whiteis.

He said blues music was often shoved aside as “entertainment for dilatants" and thus many missed the deep implications of the music and lyrics that helped tell the story of African-Americans in the 20th century.

“It was kind of like Dixieland jazz that was trivialized as goofy party music for a long time before people realized how serious it was in the life and culture of the people of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the south in those early days,” said Whiteis. “And today I think it (blues) is being trivialized by being kind of a tourist attraction without that deeper connotation being understood.”

Chicago Tribune Arts critic Howard Reich addressed this in a 2011 column. Whiteis doesn’t blame the artists. Or the tourists. And he believes the musicians he knows well in Chicago concur.

“Most listeners, tourists, and even the ‘dreaded white tourists’ have bigger ears and more appreciation for different stylistic variations than the club owners give them credit for. It’s not the audience who says, ‘I don’t want to hear that, that’s not real blues.’ It’s the club owners who tell those playing funky or rockin’ blues that ‘we can’t hire you, you’re not real blues,’” argued Whiteis.

He gave an example of Source One bass player Joe Pratt, an artist mentioned in “Blues Legacy.” Source One is known and lauded for its modern R&B soul-blues sound.

“And they got a gig opening for someone else at Buddy Guys Legends, a real tough gig (to both play and land),” said Whiteis. “And the crowd loved them so much that they got a headlining slot. This is Buddy Guys, the blues capital of the world. So, it’s the club owners who think listeners want that same ‘da da dum dum’ sound all night, and I don’t think that’s true.”

Whiteis moved to Chicago from Connecticut in the late 1970s, at least partly to take in the city’s legendary blues scene. He’s interviewed and even befriended probably hundreds of blues artists in the city since the move. Despite being deeply immersed in the scene and having written extensively about Chicago blues and its artists, he says he learned plenty during the process of writing and researching “Blues Legacy.”

“I learned more about the people,” said Whiteis. “I knew Lil’ Ed (of Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials) pretty well, we’ve been casual acquaintances for years. But here’s this good-time-party guy who gets on stage and it’s a party all night long, and this is a man of very deep emotional depth and sensitivity. I didn’t know that side of him and that came through in the story.”

He said the same happened with other artists, including Nellie “Tiger” Travis, who told him how and why they became who they are.

As a closing salvo to the resiliency and relevance of blues music in America, Whiteis quoted the late soul-blues artist Denise LaSalle, who he documents in a book scheduled to be released in 2021. It’s the end of a poem titled “America’s Prodigal Son” included in his previous book “Southern Soul Blues.” It the now well-told story of how many American musicians, especially those in jazz, soul, and blues had to go to Europe to be appreciated.

They may have forgotten that I am the one Who helped them through their hard times Shared their failures and triumphs I’ll always be grateful to America For making me the great music that I am And for accepting my children Jazz, pop, rock & roll And my grandchild, rap Only in America could I have been born, Nurtured and flourished as I have But until America wakes up and accepts me again And gives me the respect I rightfully deserve I will be a nomad, a prodigal son, immortal And indestructible But, whenever you want me America, I am just a musical note away.

"Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago" is available from the University of Illinois Press and various online booksellers.

The WGLT interview with David Whiteis

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.