The Most American Music in the Most American City
After New York City, Chicago is America’s most vital cultural capital, with music often coming to mind as its foremost contribution. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the nation’s great cultural institutions (a glorious experience at its traditional venue or at the North Shore’s summertime Ravinia Festival), and the Chicago Jazz Festival draws enormous crowds each August. But the music with which the city has been almost inseparable since the 1930s is the blues, one of the most truly American art forms.
A mixture of African and European musical traditions grown and nurtured in the South during the time of slavery, the blues came north with the African-American migration, moving from the rural Mississippi Delta to the hard streets of Chicago’s South Side, where it was electrified and reshaped into a distinctly urban music, flourishing through the 1950s. Its star waned with the advent of Motown and rock ’n’ roll, but is now on the rise again, the city’s blues clubs crowded with audiences that span the generations and races.
Each May (or early June), the four-day Chicago Blues Festival presents shows on six stages in lakefront Grant Park, where music fans enjoy a breathtaking view of the storied Chicago skyline. It’s America’s largest blues festival, with more than seventy performances drawing audiences from around the world. Everyone who is anyone has performed here, including Ray Charles, B. B. King, Shirley King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Ruth Brown.
But you don’t need a festival to hear great blues in Chicago. Any time of the year, you can go to the South Side, the place it all started and, with some exceptions, the place where the best blues clubs are still to be found. Local legend Buddy Guy (called the finest guitarist alive by Eric Clapton) makes an occasional appearance at his own eponymously named club on the south Loop, and there are plenty of other South Side clubs with performers that make the trip worthwhile despite the marginal neighborhood.