Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Chicago Blues Guide Celebrates Black History Month with:
A Visit To Maxwell Street
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
“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
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.”
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.
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.
To see and hear more of the sights and sounds of the Old Maxwell Street Market visit Tom Smith’s outstanding website: http://www.maxwellblues.com
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: