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Chicago: welcome to the Blues city

The Blues didn’t begin in Chicago, but it was here that it found its voice and began to spread its message around the world

Chicago: welcome to the Blues city
Image: Alamy

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During the Great Migration (1916-1970) when large numbers of African Americans left the South in search of better-paying jobs and equal opportunities in the north, Chicago was the promised land. People arrived in their thousands, bringing with them the sounds of the Mississippi Delta. Here, it mixed with the bright lights of the city and transformed into something bigger, electrified and symphonic. The Blues didn’t begin in Chicago. It was born from the anguish of the cotton fields, but it was here that it found its voice and began to spread its message around the world.

The epicentre for that explosion was 2120 South Michigan Avenue: Chess Records. I pay a visit to the former studio, now a museum, and see where Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley got their break; Muddy Waters recorded I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man; and Etta James snuck out of the fire escape to evade the cops. Even The Rolling Stones came to pay homage, recording a blues album here in 1964 that included an early version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. It was a gritty part of town then and it still is, but there are few places that have changed the world of music more profoundly.

It’s inspiring to see. But it’s even better to hear. In a former factory in Motor Row, I watch the Original Chicago Blues All Stars, the former backing band of Chess legend Willie Dixon, make up songs from lyrics shouted out by the crowd; at Rudy’s, a blues joint popular with the locals, I swill whisky and dance as the whole room sings along to Sweet Home Chicago; and then I take in some Chicago jazz at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the erstwhile drinking den of Al Capone, with ghosts of old gangsters tapping along somewhere in the shadows. I then head to Buddy Guy’s Legends, one of the world’s most famous blues clubs — B B King and Eric Clapton are just two of the greats who have played this tiny stage. At first, I’m disappointed: a house band goes through the motions for a near-empty room. But then suddenly, unannounced and unexpected, the boss walks on stage.

They say the blues is all about the truth. That it has to come from your DNA. I never really understood what that meant until I heard Buddy Guy sing: deep sorrowful tones, emotion bristling, all eyes and hearts magnetised to that one spot. He only plays two numbers, but I’ll remember them for the rest of my life. That’s what this city’s all about.

On my last day, as I take the train to another part of the city, a young man walks onto my carriage and begins to rap. Eyes closed, body swaying, he shouts out each word, emotion cracking the edges of his voice: “Let me get some tissue / I never met my mama, but just know I miss you / I wasn’t ready for the race when I heard the whistle / I might’ve taken my own life if I had a pistol.” It may not be coming from the cotton fields any more, but that’s the blues, however it’s sung. It’s telling the story of America; hope and despair, pain and the promised land, infused into every note.

What is the Blues?

“The difference between blues and rock ’n’ roll is the truth. To play the blues you have to have lived the blues. It comes from the mental torment and physical torture that our people had to go through. It was designed to heal. The blues man was a preacher six days a week. He kept people alive. But from that pain came the most beautiful, powerful music in the world.”
Dr Jimmy Tillman, The Original Chicago Blues All Stars

Come in July for the Chicago Blues Festival, the largest free blues festival in the world. 

Read our complete guide to the top 10 USA music cities.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)