When you think of Chicago what comes to mind? For some it’s the Cubbies, or deep-dish pizza, or even the city that helped put Al Capone on the map. But for music aficionados Chicago is the Blues capital of the world. That’s right, Blues. Artists like Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Big Walter Horton, and the incomparable Muddy Waters all honed their skills and made their careers in the Chicago nightlife of smoky rooms and dim lights. But Blues music wasn’t started in Chicago, so how did it get there?
The Mississippi river delta is the birthplace of the Blues, a style of music born out of the hard life lived in the American deep south at the turn of the 20th century. The Delta Blues had since the days of American slavery, but in the early twenties it came to life as record companies discovered the potential of this raw and passionate music. Some of the big names back in the day included Mississippi John Hurt, Hound Dog Taylor, and Big John Williams.
Then came two world wars that would change the landscape of Blues music forever. The economic hardships and resurgent discrimination facing southern blacks after WWII made northern cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo suddenly look pretty attractive. One by one the migration began with Chicago being the favorite destination due to it’s booming industry and job opportunities. Nearly a million southerners ended up in the Windy City…and they brought the Blues with them.
In their new environment artists like Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley began experimenting with amplified instruments and the heavy Chicago jazz influence. They soon expanded the Delta standard of 6-note, minor blues scales to include major scales, 9th chords, and new vocal styles. Before long Chicago Blues had an identity all it’s own. From there the music grew with the city and is as popular today as it ever was.
So next time you’re in Chi-town, grab a deep-dish, take in a Cubs game, and finish the night at a great Blues joint. You’ll be glad you did.