“Born in Chicago” — Black & White Blues

Howlin Wolf2TheSlowDrag-MuddyWaters

************************************************************************************** I recently saw Born in Chicago, a fascinating documentary that lays out how black blues musicians in Chicago during the 1960s, including Howlin’ Wolf (above left), Muddy Waters (above right), Willie Dixon and many others, influenced and mentored hungry young aspiring players, mostly Jewish, like Mike Bloomfield, Barry Goldberg, and Elvin Bishop, who went on to bring the blues to a wider, i.e. white, audience.

Chicago Blues Reunion-posterWhat became Born in Chicago was initially intended to be a DVD recording of a concert by the Chicago Blues Reunion, a band which includes Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel, and Corky Siegel among its members, all veterans of the 60s Chicago blues scene. The filmmakers eventually realized there was a much larger story to tell, and the film grew from there.

Given its subject matter, Born in Chicago sounded like something I would want to see. When I read, “Blacks and Whites Made the Blues,” Larry Rohter’s excellent article about the film in the New York Times the day before the screening, I was convinced of that. An added bonus was the news that record producer Marshall Chess, who narrates and appears in the film, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, and harmonica virtuoso Corky Siegel would be in attendance for a discussion following the screening. Siegel Schwall album cover3I was especially excited that Corky Siegel would be there. I first became aware of him in 1968, when I found an album by a group called the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band in the BX of an Air Force base where I was stationed in northern California. I hadn’t heard of them, but the energy of the blurred cover photograph got my attention. As it turned out, I was expecting something more like Cream or Savoy-Brown, and didn’t have the patience for the more authentic blues of numbers such as “Slow Blues in A” and “That’s Why I Treat My Baby So Fine.” I wasn’t ready then, but I really love them now.

Chess Records Best of albumI had a sketchy sense of the history this film covers, but nothing that put it together the way Born in Chicago does. Marshall Chess, who narrates the film as well as being interviewed on-camera, is a direct link to the Chicago-based record company, Chess Records, which has been called “America’s greatest blues label.” Chess Records was founded in 1950 by Marshall’s father, Leonard Chess, and his uncle, Phil. Its importance, like that of Sun Records, cannot be underestimated. Chess was home to such artists as Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Etta James, all of whom contributed to the distinctive Chicago blues sound and, along with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, to the growth of rock ‘n’ roll.

A prominent figure in Born in Chicago is guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who was among the first of the young white musicians who began hanging out in black blues clubs in the 60s, soaking up the music and learning as much as they could. I don’t think they were trying to be civil rights pioneers (that movement was just beginning); I think they just loved the music and wanted to get to the source. Bloomfield, who grew up in a wealthy Jewish family on the North Side of Chicago, fell in love with the blues when he was still a teenager, hanging out in blues clubs on Chicago’s South Side, a predominately black area. During these rounds he got to know Paul Butterfield, a relationship that would prove important to his career. Butterfield, like Bloomfield, came from a privileged background. He was the son of a lawyer and painter, had attended private school, and studied classical flute. But Butterfield wanted to play blues harmonica, and began frequenting the same clubs, where he met Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Nick Gravenites, and Charlie Musselwhite.

Charlie Musselwhite & Mike Bloomfield

Charlie Musselwhite & Mike Bloomfield

Paul Butterfield

Paul Butterfield

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As to why young Jewish guys would want to play the blues, Mike Bloomfield has been quoted as saying, “It’s natural. Black people suffer externally in this country. Jewish people suffer internally. the suffering’s the mutual fulcrum for the blues.” Marshall Chess says something similar in Larry Rohter’s New York Times article: “I think there’s something in the pain of the blues, something deep, that touches something ancient in Jewish DNA.”

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was formed in 1963, and included guitarist Elvin Bishop, and two members of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Jerome Arnold on bass and Sam Lay on drums. Bloomfield joined the band in 1964. The title cut of their second album, “East-West” (released in 1966) is a thirteen-minute instrumental tour de force, an early jazz/blues/rock fusion mixed with Indian raga that’s quite amazing.

Bloomfield met Bob Dylan at a club in Chicago. Dylan’s account of this meeting in Born in Chicago is quite amusing, and also reflects his high regard for Bloomfield’s playing. After hearing the Butterfield band play at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan asked them to back him the next day for his first electric performance. With very little rehearsal, Bloomfield, Sam Lay, and Jerome Arnold played a four-song electric set with Dylan that became quite controversial. Bloomfield went on to record with Dylan, and is prominent on Highway 61 Revisited, especially on “Like a Rolling Stone.” Per the Wikipedia entry, “Bloomfield’s sound was a major part of Dylan’s change of style…”

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Through a deft mix of interviews and performance clips, Born in Chicago sharply conveys the strength and beauty of this music, which was very specific to a time and place. The interviews provide a kind of oral history and commentary from people who were there at the beginning, and those who came after. We hear from Marshall Chess, Nick Gravenites, Corky Siegel, Keith Richards, Eric Burdon, Jack White, and others. A standout is Mike Bloomfield’s interview segment, seen in an archival clip (he died in 1981 at age 37). Young white musicians learned from older black artists, most of whom came from South, and passed it on. Born in Chicago shows us what this music meant to those who played it, and to those who loved it. – Ted Hicks

Born in Chicago had a single screening on July 26 at a Film Society of New York theater near Lincoln Center. According to the film’s director, John Anderson, distribution plans are still being worked out. If you’re at all interested, watch out for it, as it’s a valuable document with a lot of great music to boot.

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Film, Home Video, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Born in Chicago” — Black & White Blues

  1. Pingback: Films etc. – Three Years Down the Road | Films etc.

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