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Interview: Karen Hanson, Author of Today's Chicago Blues

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 12, 2006 6:01PM

Now that Blues Fest has come to a close again this year, countless fans are undoubtedly thinking, “You know, I really ought to see more live blues in the city.” 2006_06_chicagoblues.jpgBut where? And who? And if I accidentally end up on stage, will I be forced to sing? Luckily, author Karen Hanson has some answers.

Hanson is the author of Today’s Chicago Blues, a guidebook on the Chicago blues scene, to be released through Lake Claremont Press in July (though Amazon lists it as September). The book is intended to give the novice blues fan an introduction to the clubs, artists and creative forces behind Chicago’s blues scene.

Currently a writing teacher at DeVry University, Hanson has written about blues music for
several online and print publications, and she blogs about the blues at the coincidentally titled site Today’s Chicago Blues.

Hanson spoke with Chicagoist back in May about how she got interested in the blues, the changes in the Chicago blues scene over the last ten years and the best hidden blues treasures in the city.

Chicagoist: How did you first get interested in the blues?
Karen Hanson: I got a CD player for my birthday and went looking for CDs. I found a cassette tape of The Best Of Muddy Waters in a discount bin. I brought it home and played it and thought “Oh my God, where did this music come from?” I began researching the personnel that was on the album and finding recordings by them and it just mushroomed from there. I think that is the Rosetta Stone of all the blues. Once you understand that, you can just make your way to everything else.

C: How soon after you got into the blues did you start visiting clubs? KH: It was a while because I had no clue. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. I had no idea where to go, what time did the music start, what was it like in there? Since I was on the South Side, it was Buddy Guy’s Legends that drew me in. Not only because it was closer and easier to get to, but also because there were a lot of artists there that I wanted to see. In the course of doing this book, there were a lot of clubs I had never been to before. For instance, Bill’s Blues in Evanston, which is fairly new. Chord On Blues out in St. Charles, which is quite a trek for me.

C: How do the clubs in the ‘burbs compare to ones in the city? What do you think are the differences?
KH: You see mostly local people. You don’t see too many tourists. For example, the Harlem Avenue Lounge, which is in Berwyn, is filled with guys from the neighborhood. You see couples out for a date or playing pool. You see guys coming in after work and having a beer.

C: Do you think there’s a difference in the kind of music that’s being played at the suburban locations versus the downtown clubs?
KH: I think the difference you will see is in the clubs that are primarily in African-American neighborhoods, you do hear a difference then because you hear a lot more soul and R&B and funk. They lean more toward the Tyrone Davis side of the blues than the Muddy Waters side.

C: What’s the biggest difference you see between the way things are in the clubs now versus 10 years ago?
KH: Two things stand out. One is the loss of so many top-notch artists. Ten years ago you could have gone to see Son Seals, Jimmy Rodgers, Willie Kent, and now, of course, they’re gone. The second change is just that the clubs, and music in general, especially the smaller genres, have taken a hit from changes in the music industry and the economy. Ten years ago, if you had a festival you could get a lot of corporate sponsors. Now it’s very difficult to get that kind of support.

C: Do you think the blues is in danger of becoming something you’ll see only in a museum or is it still a living, breathing thing?
KH: I think Chicago will continue to have the strongest blues scene in the entire world and this is something that a lot of people don’t realize. Especially people that grow up around here and live around here. They think the blues is a museum relic. And if you think that, you should go to some of these other towns and try to find a blues band. You can’t. I was in New York City and went to B.B. King’s. Of course, B.B. King is much loved and respected. But the band that was in there introduced Little Red Rooster as a Muddy Waters song. Of course, that’s a Howlin’ Wolf song. They don’t even know the music that they’re playing. You don’t find that in Chicago. In fact, you find people moving into Chicago specifically because they want to play the blues. You see people who have made pilgrimages, who have saved for years to plan a trip to Chicago to see the blues bands. But it’s like…I haven’t been to the top of the Sears Tower. Have you?

C: Twice. But only when I had friends in from out of town.
KH: There you go.

C: You figure the Sears Tower will always be there and you’ve always got time.
KH: I think that’s the case and I’m hoping with the book that people wake up and realize the stature Chicago has globally with the blues.

C: How did you go about organizing the book?
KH: There are chapters on city clubs and suburban clubs. I have chapters on historical spots, cultural sites, the Blues Festival and the blues record labels in Chicago. There’s a chapter on blues jams and radio shows and some selected profiles of some artists. It’s a guide for fans, for people who are interested in learning more, knowing where to go. It’s not meant to be evaluative, it’s descriptive.

C: Are there things that need to be done by the blues community at large to promote the scene better?
KH: I would really like to see a Chicago Blues Society associated with the Blues Foundation. There were some that have come and gone through the years, but it’s very difficult to keep it going. There are a few people that have formed The Chicagoland Blues Society. It’s very small and loosely organized. I’d really like to see that take off.

C: How do you think WBEZ’s changes will affect the blues community?
KH: The artists are upset about it. They can’t get airplay on commercial radio, they can’t get airplay on the black-owned stations, they can’t get airplay at all. You can’t fall in love with music that you can’t hear. When Coming Home goes away, they’re going to be left with one less outlet to get their music heard by the general audience.

C: Are there stories about the Chicago blues community that you think aren’t being told, that need to be?
KH: There are little, tiny clubs and bars at the South and West sides where there is blues being played that nobody knows about. I’d like to see somebody tell the story of what it’s like to be a woman in the blues community. At Blue Chicago, I spoke with Big Time Sarah and she says someone should tell what it’s like to be a woman on the road. It’s really a different experience than it is to be a man. Of course, there are stories out at Maxwell Street. There are guys who have been out there for forty or fifty years and nobody knows their names.

C: What are some of the unheralded clubs and artists that people should know about.
KH: (laughs) There’s a guy who hangs out at Lee’s Unleaded Blues. They call him Gaylord The Arkansas Bellyroll. He’s about 80 years old and he sings and plays harmonica. He sits at the bar until they call him up. They have a lot of guys who are not full-time artists, they’re not trying to be famous. They just want to play the music. Have you ever heard of Holly B. Maxwell?

C: Mmm….no.
KH: The Blonde Bombshell! Holly hangs out at little clubs on the South Side. She spends a lot of time in Europe. Of course, Europeans love the blues. When I was at The Bossman on the West Side on Lake Street near Garfield Park, there’s a lot of guys out there. They work as whatever during the day and then show up at night and sit in with the band.

C: Who do you think is emerging as a standard-bearer for the blues in Chicago now that we’ve lost so many great artists?
KH: That’s a difficult one. I think the best talent in Chicago right now is Carl Weathersby. He hadn’t been doing a lot lately, he’s had some health problems. But he’s my favorite. Then there are some people who have been around a while. Nora Jean Bruso, who used to record under the name Nora Wallace, has kind of made a comeback in recent years. She’s just terrific. We still have some of the older ones. If you really want to know what the West Side sound is like, Jimmie Johnson is still around.

C: What do you think is unique about the sound of Chicago blues is now that differentiates it from other places?
KH: I think the most distinctive thing in the Chicago blues is that it’s an ensemble sound. Every instrument is important. That’s the way it started in the late 40s, early 50s. Even though you hear the guitar-driven sound.

C: What about between, say, the West and South Side?
KH: The West Side is a little funky sometimes while the South Side is a little more soul and R&B kind of stuff. When you look at artists like Otis Clay or even Artie “Blues Boy” White, they have a lot of soul.

C: There’s huge differences in the blues even though many people want to lump it all together even in different cities.
KH: I think that’s why a lot of people get disappointed in what they hear because they expect to hear Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. That’s a particular sound that grew out of a particular time and particular social conditions that you can’t duplicate. In the same way that you can’t duplicate the British Invasion or Motown.

C: Sometimes I worry that striving for a particular sound hurts the vitalness of the scene. Or even a particular look, especially when you look at the difficulties that white acts have in getting booked into clubs sometimes.
KH: I don’t think it’s the music, I think it’s people’s expectations that are off the mark. It’s the difference between touring Epcot Center and actually touring the world. The blues is not something you just look at. It’s participatory, it gets you involved. You’re expected to make noise and become involved in it. The clubs put you in an intimate setting with the artists, especially some of the smaller clubs like B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. It’s not something like at the United Center where you stand back and stare at this little figure on the stage.