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Bronzeville Blues

By Eric Segal | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

"Everybody always tries to put race in music. There's no race in music. The Blues is blue. You have the Blues, I have the Blues, everybody," says Gregg Parker, founder of the Chicago Blues Museum. "It's an American art form. It's one music. It's for us."

In a South Side Chicago neighborhood called Bronzeville, musical styles ranging from Delta Blues and Texas Blues to Piedmont Blues were played alongside one another during the 1940s and 1950s. Home to African Americans hailing from different regions of the South and of varying social classes, the neighborhood was an amalgam of influences that spurred innovations in blues music.

"The Harlem of Chicago: The History of Bronzeville," an exhibition at the Chicago Blues Museum, explores the neighborhood's musical heritage through photographs, memorabilia gathered from long-since demolished Bronzeville landmarks such as the Regal Theater, archival film footage of blues musicians performing at their prime, and period reconstructions of scenes from nightclubs such as the Club DeLisa. The exhibition has received support from the Illinois Humanities Council.

Large numbers of African Americans had moved from the rural South to industrial cities of the North during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century. In Chicago, the majority of the city's African Americans were cordoned off into densely populated, racially segregated neighborhoods. Legal agreements such as restrictive covenants prohibited African Americans from residing in certain buildings.

Bronzeville was a cultural hub for the city's growing African American population and the burgeoning blues community. Entrepreneurs opened nightclubs such as the Checkerboard Lounge and formed record companies that included the legendary Chess Records, the label that signed Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry. Musicians performed with electrically amplified instruments that had not been available in small Southern communities.

The Chicago Blues Museum has amassed a large collection of artifacts by establishing personal relationships with the families of blues musicians who performed during the forties and fifties. Included in this collection are rare color photographs of guitarist Jimmy Rogers, which were donated to the museum by his widow. "We set our goals to really work with the families and work with the artists, as opposed to just going out on our own," says Parker. "Most of the people out there dealing with the Blues, they're just making money off of it. They're not contributing anything back--not to the families, not even to the music."

The museum's staff is working to encourage an appreciation for the Blues through education programs and performances. The museum has been able to reach outside its own walls to places such as Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and the city's annual Blues Festival. Music lovers will have another chance to view the museum's exhibition tent when it appears at the twenty-sixth Chicago Jazz Festival September 2 through 5.

About the Author

Eric Segal was an intern at NEH.