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Understanding The Chicago Blues from The Great Migration to End of 1950, Its Era of Unprecedented Bloom

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The early 1950s was a remarkable time for the last revival and comeback for the country blues. At this point of time, country blues was heavily overthrown by urban blues (and jazz) of the 1930s and 1940s. By 1950, the country blues returned channeling the spirit from the 1920s when a myriad of African Americans left the South in a massive wave of migration – bringing with them their musical inheritance.

It has been fifty years since the blues had finally attained the status of being an “artistic” form of music. A very long overdue, it is considered as a major American contribution to the musical systems of the world. The blues remained the same ever since it was conceived, which then goes to say the level of its artistic value. The subject of this paper, the Chicago blues, developed from natural means and was a central component in reviving country blues.

Chicago played a central role in the formation of a newly reformed country blues. This role is rooted upon three key factors: first, the city was a crucial place of refuge for black migrants, especially those who are coming from the Mississippi Delta, where the blues were deeply rooted in the rural culture; second, Chicago had an underground culture of mobster operations stabilized and facilitated by ethnic lines and red-light districts that had been in existence even before the Civil War; lastly, only New York had surpassed the city for show business. Considering all these factors, Chicago was able to provide talented black performing artists and musicians with rather rare and scarce employment and studio/music recording opportunities. These three factors – the community of African Americas, the underground life and the entertainment industry – polymerized with the political events of that time, created that a whole new blues tradition that would sprung in the streets and night clubs of Chicago.

Two main features of African American living in the United States of America are segregation and migration. After slavery ended, Africans Americans did become free from bondage as well as oppression but they did not experience the same rights as a white man has. Therefore, segregation provides the momentum and motivation for migration. Segregation was not the only cause of the migration but also of unemployment and mass murder (lynching), however, African Americans did consider migration as their last resort.

In the musical sense, segregation created the blues whilst migration spread the message of the blues. The African American migrants of the South included people who were first-hand slaves, to whom the well-known spirituals were made of. In addition, it is in fact that the blues were rooted from the traditions of the spiritual music.

The first wave of Northward migration commenced at about 1915 when the Southern agriculture suffered from an appalling and difficult state. This consisted of cotton crops being ravaged by insects (locusts, boll weevil) and series of heavy flooding. Furthermore, the decline and breaking down of Reconstruction in the American South as well as the licking economic servitude which tormented black farmers were also great factors that contributed to trendy fashion of migration.

Chicago also has its own characteristics that motivated and pulled African Americans from the South. Chicago, at this time, was a major active recruiting city for African Americans which means that employment was a possibility. Furthermore, wages were way higher than local jobs in the South. In addition, Robert Abbott’s Chicago Defender was another motivating factor for the migration. The said newspaper was the town’s leading paper for the black community that talked about the atrocities the black community suffered in the South; thus, it served as a major beacon for the African American migration to Chicago. It is needless to say that since newspapers are being passed hand to hand, its influence on the migration of African Americans to the North would be hard to overestimate.

African Americans settlement on the Chicago Southside has long trace of tradition and history. The South Side black area was a narrow strip, a few blocks wife, bounded by railroad tracks and factories. It is stretched from 22nd Street to 39th Street by 1900s. In addition, segregation, overcrowding, and the lack of adequate public facilities and services created the poor and hovel conditions. Also, the proximity to the red light districts heavily increased the problem. African Americans were then forced to rely on their own resources: self-help institutions such as civic groups as well as social clubs. Black politicians also emerged and worked their way into authoritative positions.

Technically speaking, the second major wave of black migrants who travelled to Chicago was during the First World War. Due to this fast eruption of population in the city, house units that usually sheltered one family, now foster three to four families. Furthermore, tension built up between the African Americans of the South Side and the Poles and Irish living in the North Side. By 1917, records of physical assaults and random house and business bombings were reported by black Chicago residents. Shootings rooted in racial prejudice emerged in 1919. These discriminations against the African Americans were ignored by the local authorities and life continued like the usual in Chicago.

The Volstead Act of 1920 (which banned the manufacture and consumption of liquor) spearheaded the era of unmatched opportunity for gangs and other groups to take advantage of illegal businesses. Illegitimate drinking jumped rapidly everywhere in the United States. However, Chicago has proved to be the best of this when the tension between authorities and businesses arose, these illegal groups are busy providing the public their demands.

This prohibition has a dramatic effect on the blues and at that time, jazz. However, the jazz scene in Chicago was too busy entertaining the young and rich white audience in the more high-rise and palatial cafes, social halls and dance halls. On the other hand, the blues were prevalent in house parties. From the prohibition came the rent parties in which the admission charge covered the food cost and whiskey. The result of all these was the establishment of the club scene that is lustful and vigorous that made Chicago to be the “home of the blues”.

In Chicago, night life and underground establishments were first referred as “black and whites” because they featured black performers entertaining white audiences. The gangsters, which are Italians and Jewish, were smart enough to form an ally with the Thompson political party. However, in exchange for the immunity from the laws, they had to share and cut the profits as well as an assurance of votes on Election Day.

State Street was in the center of the vice area of the South Side. Most of the clubs were located in the South Side and a few scattered around the West Side area. The main body system of the South Side were State Street, Michigan and Indiana Avenues. Even vaudeville blues composer Perry Bradford would write in his autobiography:

I was short of money in Chicago and old “Mojo” seemed to whisper in my ear, “sing and play your blues”. The first one I sung and did it. I saw all the pimps and their gals and I remembered this verse of the blues I started with: “My gal walked in the street in the rain and wet/ This is what she said to every man she met/ I don’t want your nickel just give me a lousy dime/ SO I can feed this hungry pimp of mine”.

Famous nightspots also included the Three Deuces on North State Street in which Lonnie Johnson first played in Chicago in 1930. Homesick James moved to Chicago for good in 1934 and was then employed in a steel mill. He is the found working alongside Horace Henderson at the Circle Inn, 63rd and Wentworth. Eventually, he worked at the sketchy named Square Deal Club, 230 W Division Street, with the famed pianist Jimmy Walker. It is said that the two would play for five to six hours with a repertoire that is mostly Blind Boy Fuller and Memphis Minnie for three dollars each. This has always been a pattern for blues musicians in this time and it will seem very hard for newcomers to break into the music scene.

It was a rugged and tough way to make living out of the nightclubs in Chicago. However, it was harder of street singers. The nightclubs were home for established musicians and artists or novices that are being fostered and mentored by Big Billy or Sonny Boy, two of the big names in the blues scene. New artists arriving in Chicago had to crawl their way by performing in rent parties, house parties and streets. Maxwell Street market area, has the largest audience capacity a street musician could reach.

Race records entered the music market which targeted African Americans between 1920s and 1950s. These records mostly contained race music, consisting various African-American musical genres including blues, jazz, and gospel comedy. These records were the main commercial recordings of the African-American artists in the US.

Chicago was the only other major city that cradles a big recording industry and with this, it attracted many of the most proficient blues artists in the American South. African American blues artists made Chicago their new home base and the materials and songs recorded between 1924 and 1941 are considered to be the best of the blues. Chicago Defender’s advertisements also helped a lot by reaching nationwide African American attention. This vast reach of audience made music more to the lead in the industry of recording. This was reinforced by the idea that African Americans in the North or South would purchase these disks if they were made available. By the end of the 1920s, $40 million worth of race records were purchased.

By 1947, the Chess Brothers, a pair of Polish born immigrants, commenced operations with their newly found recording company, Aristocrat Records. They started from a small office but by 1948, they moved to 5429 S. Cottage Grove and slowly started to become a professional recording company. In 1950, the brothers changed their label name to Chess and the blue-white label with the chessboard design was born. After their discover of Muddy Waters, the said artist released his first Chess record, “Rollin’ Stone/Walking Blues”. The record was a success and proved that Chess was starting strongly into the business.

Muddy Waters taught the Chess brothers everything they have to know about the culture of blues music. The first four sides recorded were consisted of classic blues examples which highlights all the poetry of the genre. Sad Letter Blues was a remake of a Columbia side and Muddy depicted the complexities and indecisiveness that is brought by grief –

I got a letter this morning, this is the way my letter read

I got a letter this morning, this is the way my letter read

Says you better come home Muddy Waters, tell me your baby’s dead

On the other hand, his Louisiana Blues included voodoo and hoodoo themes which are successful at that time.

The year 1950 also brought Jimmy Rogers to the Chess Records and his first record That’s All Right was a big success due to its catchy tune, unusual in blues, which made it quite memorable for the audiences. As the years go by, Chess Records would get a hand on Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy William II and many more until the decline of blues in 1960s as more genres of music such as gospel, pop and rock n’ roll start to occupy the Chicago music scene.

At the end of the Second World War, Chicago was undoubtedly the cradle of blues music in all of America. This title is proven to be indisputable up to the present time due to the survival of night clubs featuring blues music especially in the South Side, as well as the annual Chicago Blues Festival that takes place in Millenium Park. Nevertheless, the blues culture in Chicago developed from the migration wave during the war years, formation of ghetto living as well as the boom in entertainment industry. The blues thrived and survived in the South Side and transformed into a more vital genre without losing its critical quality and the social importance that it has for the Chicago African American community.

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Understanding the Chicago Blues from the Great Migration to End of 1950, Its Era of Unprecedented Bloom. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
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