The Chicago Blues: A Brief History
Chicago has long since been known as the Blues Capital of the World — and for good reason. Almost all of the genre’s most influential and talented musicians either came out of Chicago or hit their peak after moving to the city.
But to be fair, it’s important to note that Chicago is not the birthplace of the Blues. Long before patrons were jamming in the bar basements of the Windy City, big guys with acoustic guitars and harmonicas were heating up venues in the south of the country. Though the exact origins of the Blues were never recorded, it’s generally accepted that this influential genre of music was born in the North Mississippi River Delta in the late 19th century, just after the Civil War. The original Delta Blues are heavily influenced by its creators’ African roots, as well as their daily lives, expressing feelings of both hope and despair, freedom and oppression. Many assert that Blues originated in the fields, as plantation slaves sang field hollers to each other, creating rhythms by stomping their feet and clapping their hands.
Wherever you choose to pinpoint its origins, by the turn of the century the Delta Blues was becoming a fully-formed musical genre, complete with budding famous players. But while the Blues were alive and kicking in the South, Jazz still reigned as king of the Chicago music world.
In the early 20th century 1.4 million African-Americans, many of which were newly-freed slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation, began heading North in what is known as The Great Migration. Moving to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, they left the South in search of better opportunities and less discrimination. After huge success hosting the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair, Chicago had become home to a flourishing art scene and was receiving international acclaim. This new found reputation called to musicians in the South, promising opportunities for success and a new home for Blues in Chicago.
Among the musicians who had success in Chicago in the early 20th century are Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Georgia Tom, and the legendary Big Bill Broonzy. An early innovator, Broonzy created his own Blues sound which became a predecessor to the genre as we know it today. Many of today’s most renowned Blues musicians have named him as their inspiration.
Throughout the 20s and 30s Chicago acted as an incubator for Blues music, but it wasn’t until the arrival of another influx of southern migrants that Chicago arose as the new official home of Blues. With the end of World War II, African-Americans were essentially ousted from their jobs to make room for white soldiers returning from war. The resulting lack of available jobs, combined with an intensifying racial situation, fueled a second mass exodus from the South, this time even more notably to Chicago.
It was in the following decades that the true Chicago Blues came into being. As Blues musicians moved from places like Mississippi and Tennessee to Chicago, the traditional country blues began to evolve into a more urban sound. New electric guitars replaced the acoustic guitars of the Delta Blues, and an amplified, more dynamic style was born. This was the sound of the Chicago Blues.
At the time, the majority of Chicago residents lived on the South Side of the city, with most of the city’s activity happening in the Loop. However, as the influx of black residents arrived, many current Chicagoans headed to northern neighborhoods in what is now called the “White Flight.” As the South and West Sides filled with African-American migrants, the Blues found its new home in the small bars and venues in these areas.
From 1940 until about 1975 the Blues was thriving in Chicago, and some of the most famous black musicians in history were finding their place in the world of entertainment. While the Blues of the South Side was often more rowdy and raw, the Blues that developed on the West Side was a smoother, jazz-influenced sound. Among these guitar-playing, harmonica-toting innovators were Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Kansas Joe McCoy and Buddy Guy. Though each had the Deep south in their hearts, the soul of the Chicago Blues shone through them.
As the years passed, local bars became acclaimed Blues venues, and dingy storefronts grew into full-blown record companies. Founded in 1950, Chess Records, along with its subsidiary Checker Records, remains known as a trailblazer for the Blues genre. Delmark Records and Alligator Records also made their names in Chicago Blues history, recording big names like Junior Wells, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks.
Though the Blues had found a new home and audiences were growing across the country, Chicago was undergoing some changes that would essentially halt the rapid growth of the Blues. Between the 50s and 70s, Mayor Richard J. Daley notably neglected the cultural development and growing music scene in developing the West and South Sides, putting almost all of the city’s money into reshaping the city around the new North Side. As a result, the South and West Sides of Chicago became the sites of more and more conflicts between residents and police. Eventually, due to redistricting and new taxes, many of the Blues joints that had made the city and the genre famous were closed.
Sadly, along with many of the original bars, clubs and venues, the first Blues record labels — those credited as being the founding locations of Chicago Blues — have since closed down. Much of the city’s original Blues scene is now only legend. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of great places where locals and tourists alike can enjoy authentic Chicago Blues. Check out our list of recommended Blues venues in the city, or head out and explore on your own!