Styles & Forms | Chicago Blues

Chicago blues is a raw, rough-and-tumble music, defined by slashing, Delta-rooted electric slide guitars, raunchy-toned harmonicas overblown into handheld microphones to the point of distortion, uptempo shuffled rummers, insistently walking bass players and declamatory, soulful vocalists who imbued the tunes with Southern gospel fervour.

It became a universally recognized sound by the 1960s, fuelling the British blues movement in the early part of the decade (spearheaded by Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, John Mayall and The Rolling Stones) and the American blues boom of the late 1960s (spearheaded by blues rock pioneers such as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop and Johnny Winter, and bands such as The Blues Project and Canned Heat).

Urban And Amplified

Just as a generation of New Orleans jazz musicians had migrated from the source of the music to Chicago in the 1920s, a generation of Mississippi bluesmen migrated from the fertile Mississippi Delta region to Chicago in the 1940s. Mississippians such as Sunnyland Slim, Bukka White, Robert Nighthawk, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Otis Rush, Homesick James, Johnny Young, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Reed and Hound Dog Taylor were among the Delta blues musicians who came north to the Windy City, where they helped forge an urban, amplified take on the Delta sound. A second wave, including Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Buddy Guy, Pinetop Perkins, Big Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton, James Cotton, Magic Sam, Magic Slim, David Honeyboy Edwards and Carey Bell, followed that same path north in the early 1950s, contributing to the post-war Chicago blues explosion.

By the 1960s, Chicago’s south side was a bustling hub of blues activity. Bands led by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Otis Rush, Homesick James, J. B. Hutto, Otis Spann, Junior Wells and Howlin’ Wolf performed regularly at South Side nightclubs such as Peppers Lounge, Turner’s Blue Lounge, Theresa’s, the J&C Lounge and Curley’s. A significant recording from 1965 documented this vital scene and helped spread the word about lesser-known Chicago blues artists to a much wider audience. Produced by Samuel Charters for the Vanguard label, the three-volume Chicago/The Blues/Today! became the Rosetta Stone for many young blues initiates. As Eric Clapton recalled: ‘It was a very important slice of history which helped me to understand the nature of modern blues music.’

The acknowledged father of the Chicago blues scene was McKinley Morganfield (a.k.a. Muddy Waters). A product of the fertile Mississippi Delta, he grew up in Clarksdale on Stovall’s plantation, where he emulated the passionate slide-guitar stylings of Delta patriarch Son House. In 1941, the musicologist Alan Lomax made important field recordings of Waters at Stovall’s under the auspices of the Library of Congress, documenting for all time the intensity and unfettered expression of the Mississippi Delta bluesman. Two years later, Waters moved to Chicago,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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