Sweet Home Chicago

Blues and African American Life

Chicago (1947) by Walker EvansLIFE Photo Collection

Between 1940 and 1970, almost four million African Americans left the farms and small towns of the South to seek a better life in northern and west coast cities. This population shift came to be called the Great Migration. Along with their dreams of a better future, these newcomers brought with them an incredibly vibrant type of music: the blues. A prime destination for southern migrants was Chicago and one major result was the Chicago Electric Blues.  

12th Street Station by Mildred MeadChicago History Museum

The Illinois Central Railroad, running from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta and Memphis to Chicago, brought hundreds of blues musicians to the city. Adjusting to the noisy, bustling urban scene, these artists plugged their guitars into amplifiers, added piano and drums, and pioneered the Chicago Electric Blues.

Mississippi John Hurt by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Originating in the work and leisure-time songs of rural black laborers, the blues genre is most closely associated with the Mississippi Delta, the region surrounding the floodplain of the Yazoo River in northwest Mississippi. The Delta Blues uses a 12-bar format: a four-measure phrase that is repeated and then a capping four-measure phrase. The music has a strong rhythmic drive, and acoustic guitar and harmonica are the main instruments. Guitarists from the region often use a glass or metal slide on the fretboard to bend their notes, creating powerful emotional effects as they sing of love won and lost and the traveling life.

Raeburn Flerlage by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

In the 1960s, music industry veteran Raeburn Flerlage captured the Chicago blues scene in thousands of photographs. He also documented many other facets of African American life in the city. Those images are now preserved at the Chicago History Museum. Take a look at a selection of these photographs that document the Chicago Electric Blues: a major cultural expression of the Great Migration and a widely influential musical form.

South Side, Chicago by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Rigid racial segregation kept Chicago’s black population largely confined to the South and West Sides of the city, often in older, substandard housing. The neighborhoods were crowded, but this also meant that blues music was woven into everyday life. Musicians’ homes, clubs, and record stores were all within blocks of each other

Patrons at an unidentified blues club by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Blues clubs were fixtures in the neighborhood – musicians and patrons often knew one another, and each performance grew out of the interplay between musicians and audience.

Big Joe Williams by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Joseph Lee “Big Joe” Williams linked the postwar electric blues with the acoustic Delta Blues. He traveled the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in the 1920s, began working with an amplifier in the 1940s, and toured widely for many years.

Muddy Waters at the Civic Opera House by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Guitarist and singer Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was the dominant figure on the Chicago blues scene. He and his band established the template for the Chicago Electric Blues – guitar, bass, harmonica, piano, and drum kit.

Maxwell Street, Raeburn Flerlage, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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The blues could be heard on Chicago’s streets as well as in clubs. Many artists got their start playing for tips before the crowds of shoppers at the Maxwell Street Market, a collection of shops and food stands just southwest of downtown.

Little Walter on Maxwell Street, Raeburn Flerlage, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Little Walter Jacobs brought his guitar to Maxwell Street, but the harmonica was his main instrument. He redefined blues harmonica by using the amplifier as an extension of his instrument.

Junior Wells and Little Walter at Theresa's by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Musicians often joined club goers for a drink and conversation between sets. Here Junior Wells takes a break at Theresa‘s.

53rd Street and Prairie Avenue, Raeburn Flerlage, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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A 1960s street scene on the South Side at East 53rd Street and Prairie Avenue.

Bud Billiken Parade, Raeburn Flerlage, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Chicago’s African American community developed many institutions and annual events. "Chicago Defender" publisher Robert S. Abbott created the fictional character Bud Billiken, who personified African American life and culture. Since 1929, the Bud BIlliken Day Parade has wound its way each August through Chicago’s South Side

Lightnin' Hopkins at Western Hall by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Vocalist Koko Taylor (born Cora Anna Walton) stood out in the male-dominated blues world. Her 1966 recording of Wang Dang Doodle reached Number Four on the Rhythm & Blues Charts. She is at the far left, next to Texas bluesman Samuel John “Lightnin” Hopkins.

Magic Sam, 'Black Magic' Session by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Magic Sam Maghett exemplified the West Side Blues. It was a gutsy style that was often rawer than what South Side bands played and was influenced by rhythm and blues.

Magic Sam at 1815 Club by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Dancers at a Magic Sam date at the 1815 Club on the West Side.

Ella Jenkins by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Ella Jenkins grew up on Chicago’s South Side, surrounded by the sounds of blues, jazz, and gospel music. She became a distinguished music educator and performer, collecting children’s songs from around the world and writing many original compositions.

Otis Spann and James Cotton by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Photographer Rae Flerlage visited musicians in their homes. Here he catches pianist Otis Spann and harmonicist James Cotton in Muddy Waters’s basement.

Party at Little Brother Montgomery's by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

On another occasion, Flerlage photographed harmonicist Big Walter Horton and pianist Eurreal “Little Brother” Montgomery at a house party.

Roosevelt Sykes, 'Feel Like Blowing My Horn' Session by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Bob Koester’s Delmark was one of the more important of several Chicago independent record labels that specialized in the blues. Here Koester is at the piano to the right of Roosevelt Sykes, while Fred Below waits for his drum cue.

Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, 'Crudup's Mood' Session by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Willie Dixon—bassist, arranger, talent scout, and prolific composer—was at the heart of the Chicago blues scene. For many years, Dixon was employed by Chess Records, presiding over countless recording sessions. He wrote dozens of blues standards, including “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.”

3433-3435 South Michigan Avenue by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Advice from the spirit world was available to Southside residents at 3433 South Michigan Avenue.

Bobby Bland at the Trianon Ballroom by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

In addition to clubs, Chicago had large concert venues like the Regal Theater and the Trianon Ballroom, which hosted local groups and nationally known acts. Here West Tennessee native Robert “Bobby Blue” Bland and his band perform at the Trianon, 6201 South Woodlawn Avenue.

Bobby Bland concert by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

When Bland and other artists played in a concert setting, they would engage in call and response with the audience during their performances.

Nancy Wilson by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Jazz singer Nancy Wilson, who died in late 2018, was another nationally prominent performer photographed by Flerlage during a Chicago gig.

J.B. Hutto by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

J. B. (Joseph Benjamin) Hutto moved from South Carolina to Chicago in the late 1940s and was known for his slide guitar work—his metal slide is clearly visible here.

Donoghue Elementary School by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Donoghue Elementary School served an all-black student body at 707 East 37th Street; Rae Flerlage stopped by one day and took this shot.

Junior Wells and Buddy Guy at University of Chicago by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Louisiana-born George “Buddy” Guy continues to perform at the Chicago club that bears his name, five decades after this photo was taken.

Muddy Waters Interview by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

Many fans of rock music in the 1960s sought to explore its origins in the blues. Here Mike Bloomfield interviews one of his idols, Muddy Waters. An outstanding guitarist, Bloomfield was a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag, later recording under his own name.

John Littlejohn by Raeburn FlerlageChicago History Museum

A typical club scene from the 1960s; John Littlejohn’s band is performing

The audience for the blues is much smaller today than in the 1960s, and all of the legendary South and West Side clubs are long gone. The legacy of the blues endures—the Chicago Electric Blues was a huge influence on rock, soul, rap and virtually every other subsequent type of music. The Rolling Stones, for example, are unimaginable without the Chicago Electric Blues. The photographs of Rae Flerlage are a lasting reminder of a unique post-World War II period—a time when Chicago African Americans created and celebrated a new kind of music, one that had deep roots in the Mississippi Delta but underwent a dynamic transformation in the big city.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:

Rosemary K. Adams – Director of Print and Multimedia Publications
Bob Blythe – Archives and Manuscript Volunteer
Angela Hoover – Rights and Reproduction Manager
Julius L. Jones – Digital Content Manger
Julie Wroblewski – Senior Archivist

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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