The 31st Annual Chicago Blues Fest kicks off today, June 13, and runs through June 15, bringing hundreds of thousands of music fans into the city to hear some of the best musicians play some of the best music around. According to the City of Chicago, Blues Fest is “the largest free blues festival in the world and remains the largest of Chicago’s Music Festivals. During three days on five stages, more than 500,000 blues fans prove that Chicago is the ‘Blues Capital of the World.’”
It is exactly this that Rosalind Cummings-Yeates celebrates in her new book, Exploring Chicago Blues. Part history, part travel guide, this slim volume examines the people and places that have made the Chicago blues scene what it is today—and what it was yesterday. Indeed Cummings-Yeates seems somewhat blue herself when writing about the current state of the city’s blues scene, which is but a mere shadow of its more robust past.
Exploring Chicago Blues is presented in two parts. It begins with a history lesson, tracing the origins of Chicago’s blues scene to The Great Migration, which brought massive numbers of African Americans north between about 1915 and 1970. It was during these years, Cummings-Yeates notes, that the blues took root in Chicago, transforming from an acoustic, country-tinged sound to the more electric, urban tones we recognize today. The book then takes a look at the state of Chicago blues in modern times.
Readers will find in-depth information about the people, places, lyrics, and labels that shaped the blues in general and the Chicago blues scene in particular. Cummings-Yeates, an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia College–Chicago, employs a journalistic style of writing to tell the tale, quoting various sources and people to paint a picture of the music that has become part and parcel of Chicago. Her love of the city and its homegrown music is evident throughout the text—as is, perhaps, her nostalgia for what many might consider better days for blues during midcentury.
Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy are but a few of the blues greats profiled in these pages. Cummings-Yeates also highlights the women who shaped the blues in Chicago, among them Koko Taylor, Etta James, and Mama Yancey. Readers also will find descriptions of some of the best blues joints in the city—past and present—including Rosa’s Blues Lounge, Lee’s Unleaded Blues, and Linda’s Place. The book closes with a chapter built around two feature stories tracking the days-in-the-life aspects of two blues artists. And, in what seems something of a tangent, Cummings-Yeates also profiles some eateries related to the city’s blues scene, ostensibly because of their roots in African-American soul food.
Exploring Chicago Blues serves as part primer, part advanced reading: Some readers may not recognize some of the many names dropped in the book, but that shouldn’t dissuade them from reading what is educational and informative nonetheless. In addition to the entertaining text, which serves in many ways as a walk down memory lane of Chicago’s blues scene, the book is peppered with numerous photographs of the people and places that have made the blues here what it is. Unfortunately, the reproduction quality of the images isn’t as good as one might like; many of the photographs are dark and muddy, which is a little sad.
Perhaps that sad, dark tone is, though, in keeping with the transformation of Chicago’s blues scene. Once thriving and now less so, the Blues Capital of the World may, by some measure, have devolved into an almost Disney-like blues-lite version of what it once used to be. Nevertheless, as Cummings-Yeates writes, “blues history [is] steeped in the very sidewalks of the city, blues floats around everywhere in Chicago.”
That is true, indeed. Whether coming at the blues as a newbie, as someone with a mild interest, or as someone interested in the evolution of blues in Chicago, Exploring Chicago Blues is a quick, interesting read filled with colorful details about the city’s rich music history.
April 2014, The History Press
$16.99, paperback, 126 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen