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FEATURE: A Visit to Maxwell Street

Chicago Blues Guide Celebrates Black History Month with:

A Visit To Maxwell Street

Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis
Maxwell Street Jimmy -- 1977
When Jimmy Davis settled in Chicago, he made Maxwell Street his home. Maxwell Street Jimmy is the only musician who lived on Maxwell Street and owned a business there, The Knotty Pine Cafe.

By Tom Smith

(photos & text)

Chicago is one of the spiritual homes for the blues in America. The sound of that spirit rose from gritty streets of the Maxwell Street Market. It began with the African-American migration from the Mississippi Delta Country to Chicago in the 1920s. Legendary bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) was one of those migrants. He moved to Chicago in 1920 and teamed up with Papa Charlie Jackson (1885-1938) to play on Maxwell Street, an open-air market place for immigrants, vendors, bargain seekers, hustlers, hawkers, preachers and entertainers.  David “Honeyboy” Edwards, the last of these old Mississippi Delta Bluesmen to come through Maxwell Street, died last year at age 97.  In the 1940s the Mississippi Delta Bluesmen plugged in and went electric to be heard outside in the noisy market place. This brought about the Chicago Electric Blues sound and the era of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf playing at the Market.

            The harp players captured the Maxwell Street Sound the best: Carey Bell, Big Walter Horton and Little Walter. After moving to Chicago with Honeyboy Edwards in 1947, Little Walter made his first recording in a backroom of Abram’s Maxwell Radio and Records at 823 Maxwell Street. Walter spent his career singing the blues on street corners. Even as a member of Muddy Water’s Band, he played at the market on Sunday mornings because he made more money playing on the street than he did with the band. Maxwell veteran Hound Dog Taylor said “You used to go down to Maxwell Street on Sunday morning and pick you out a good spot, babe. Dammit, we’d make more money than I ever looked at.”

Carrie Robinson & Blind Jim Brewer
Carrie Robinson & Jim Brewer -- 1978
Gospel singer Carrie Robinson (woman dancing) gave spiritually inspired performances.

Maxwell Street was the perfect setting for the Blues. It was the dirtiest, most depressed part of the city. The boarded up buildings and broken sidewalks were the real backdrops. You can see how songs like Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” and “Mean Old World’ were born out of this atmosphere. Many songs have been written about the old market dating back to when blues on the banjo was king. In 1925 Papa Charlie Jackson recorded “Maxwell Street Blues” a song about Maxwell Street prostitutes. It was always a rough place, Little Walter carried a gun in his amplifier. Big Walter Horton’s Maxwell Street Alley Blues album is a great example of the Maxwell Street sound but my favorite is Robert Nighthawk’s Live on Maxwell Street 1964.

Jimmie Lee Robinson’s album Maxwell Street Blues (2002) features songs like the “Maxwell Street Classic” and “Maxwell Street Teardown Blues.”  Robinson, a.k.a. “The Lonely Traveler,” was born on Maxwell Street in 1931 and grew up there. He tried to save the old market until his death in 2002.  The original Maxwell Street market met its demise in 1994 due to urban renewal and a land grab by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The outdoor vendor market has been moved a few miles east of the original location and is a much smaller, cleaner version of the colorful, bustling, unregulated Maxwell Street of yore.

Shoes on car Maxwell Street
Vendor with shoes covering car -- 1993 
Let's make a deal! Everyone was there to wheel and deal.

My earliest memories of Maxwell Street go back to 1964. I can recall driving south on the Dan Ryan Expressway and seeing the old storefronts on Union Street covered with hub caps.  It’s easy to picture the market and music in 1964 thanks to Mike Shea’s great Maxwell Street documentary And This is Free. Shea set out with state-of-the-art recording equipment and a movie camera to capture the music scene and carnival-like atmosphere at the market. There are a couple other commercially available documentary films: Linda Williams and Raul Zanitsky’s Maxwell Street Blues (1981) and Phil Ranstrom’s Cheat You Fair (1994).

 My first visit to the market was in 1976 when a friend from work suggested we go there early on a Sunday morning before work. I brought a camera and took some photos. It turned into a 30-year photo documentary project with 20,000 pictures. My motivation was partly to document this piece of Chicago’s history, that was clearly coming to an end, and partly because I was getting some strong photographs. The original Maxwell Street Market is one of the most researched topics in the Chicago Historical Society’s photo archive. That is where my negatives are going when I finish digitizing them. The photos were all taken with a “vintage” 1964 Nikon F with a 35mm wide angle lens and no light meter. They were all shot on black-and-white film for artistic and archival quality.  

Buck's Red Hots Maxwell St.
Buck's Red Hots -- 1983
The Maxwell Street hot dog stands were famous for their Maxwell Street Polish sandwiches -- a Polish sausage on a bun with mustard, buried in grilled onions. 


Blind Arvela Gray
Blind Arvela Gray -- 1978
Maxwell Street veteran Arvela Gray performed at the market for decades. Note the tip cup pinned to his shirt.

Pat Rushing and band
Pat Rushing -- 1981
Pat Rushing performs with the Maxwell Street Blues Band under The Blues Tree.  Note child playing drums. 

Man in wheechair Maxwell St.
Gold Mine Corner -- 1994
Looking north up Halsted Street from Gold Mine Corner (Maxwell & Halsted Streets). 

Charlie with cigar
Charlie with Cigar -- 1994
A few weeks after this photo was taken, the wall behind my friend Charlie collapsed, damaging his car and nearly hitting him. Charlie was the market parking attendant.

Mississippi Blues Band
Mississippi Blues Band -- 1982
J.H. Davis, Jr. Mississippi Blues Band is hand written on the van. Note the old junked bathtub and mattress spring to the right.

Jim Brewer and Albert Hollins
Jim Brewer and Albert Hollins -- 1981
Jim Brewer performed on Maxwell Street for 40 years.

Our Town
Our Town -- 1992
This study in contrast captures Maxwell Street's role in a diverse city. Note the ad on the bus with Michael Jordan modeling for Bigsby & Kruthers.

To see and hear more of the sights and sounds of the Old Maxwell Street Market visit Tom Smith’s outstanding website:

You can visit today’s version of the Maxwell Street Market, which hosts blues acts on Sundays during the warmer months. It is located at Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Street.

You can read CBG’s reviews of these Maxwell Street DVD’s by clicking on the title:

And This is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street by Mike Shea

 Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street by Phil Ranstrom

There are plenty of old cars in these photos of Maxwell Street. The old station wagon covered with shoes for sale is a really great image! Cars from the '70s and '80s may not be good options for TitleMax title loans, but they sure have a look and style all their own.


rambler.jpg lynnejordan.jpgLynne Jordan