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by Albert Corvera and Christopher Brinckerhoff

As the summer heat replaces the wet spring, and the smell of burgers and beer wafts from the concessions, it means one thing to Chicagoans in early June – Bluesfest.

Since 1984, the first year of Bluesfest, Chicago’s lakefront has seen well over a million blues fans around the world each year. The famous music celebration kicks off the season of many free outdoor festivities this summer.

Electric music vibrated from a Gibson guitar, and the harmonious voice of Gabe “Mississippi” Carter blasted from his practice amp atop the Monroe Street Bridge. Carter’s laid-back blueseque appearance of worn overalls, a large brimmed hat, and scruffy beard embody the grittiness that is not only blues music, but Chicago too.

Carter said he was born with the blues. His life began in Michigan, then he moved to Mississippi, and he now lives in Chicago.  Fittingly, when Carter isn’t playing the blues, he works as a mover. Carter was a street performer at Bluesfest, playing for pocket change and smiles.

“I’m just here tryin to make some money, have fun, and there are some people I want to see, mostly on the juke joint stage,” Carter said on the Bluesfest’s first day, June 5.

The same blues spirit can be found in legendary blues performer Frank Scott, Jr., a.k.a., Little Sonny. At Bluesfest Scott performed on the Maxwell Street Stage with his friend Piano C. Red.

Scott collaborated with Red on “The Lost American Bluesmen” CD, recorded in 1996, and released in 1998. The album is a collection of blues from artists including Jimmie Lee Robinson, Willie Hudson, Bill Warren and Sleepy Otis Hunt. Of the 15 songs on the album, four feature Scott; Living In The Ghetto, American Bluesmen, Reap What You Sow, and Double Trouble.

Scott plays the guitar and drums, but he has also created a new instrument, the percussive house keys. The house keys were attached to a kind of branch like pole, and wrapped in green tape. Dozens of clusters of keys are attached to the flexible pole, and Scott shakes them in rhythm with the drums onstage.

Along with the percussive house keys Scott plays, there are also hundreds of keys attached to his bicycle he uses to get around town. The bicycle was strapped to his small red car, which was laden with Christmas lights and world flags.

Scott’s modes of transportation are artfully adorned with what he said is “the attraction.” The large quantities of house keys are emblematic of the number of years the former Maxwell Street business owner and performer has been on the Chicago blues scene.

Scott is a Texan native, but, since arriving in 1950, has lived most of his life in Chicago. He’s been playing the blues since 1948, and like many of Chicago’s blues musicians, used to perform at the original Maxwell Street Market.

Scott also owned a blues bar called Juketown Community Blues Bandstand on Maxwell and Halsted until September 2001 when the University of Illinois at Chicago fenced off the north side of Maxwell Street, and demolished the historic blues bar. Since the late 40s, Maxwell Street had been a mainstay on the Chicago blues music scene.  

Click here for a video with more on the impact of the Maxwell Street construction.

Scott said he got the idea of using keys as an instrument when he owned the blues bar, and when the band didn’t show up, he would shake the keys along with music from a boom box.

“The keys add rhythm and foundation to blues,” Scott said.

Scott calls his car a museum on wheels. Inside he carries a briefcase with dozens of colorful music posters he has designed over the years.

Another Chicago blues musician who played on the Maxwell Street Stage opening day at Bluesfest was Ramblin’ Rose. In addition to singing, Rose plays harmonica. She has performed at Maxwell Street Market, and, recently at Juniors Sports Lounge. At Bluesfest Rose sang on the Maxwell Street Stage.

“I sang “Dirty Old Woman” because that’s what I am,” Rose said.

Rose was awed with the quantity of keys Scott uses on his instrument and bicycle.

“They’re just unbelievable. You should be in the Guinness Book of World Records,” Rose said.

Rose said the spirit of the blues for her is not a down and out, someone done me wrong kind of blues. Rose said her life is great and loves the blues.

“The blues is not a bad thing to me,” Rose said.  “I’m doing great, life is great.”

Chicagoan and Bluesfest attendee Diane Kuchay said “nothing much” gives her the blues. “I’m a pretty positive person.”

Kuchay, a part-time consultant and regular Bluesfest attendee, didn’t realize that the festival was happening until she walked outside her building.

 “I knew it was going to happen sometime in June, but I didn’t really know when, she said.”

Though blues music is said to typically carry a down or sad feeling, the tone of Chicago Bluesfest 2008 was the opposite.

“I love the atmosphere, the music, the food and the camaraderie,” Kuchay said.

Click here to find out about upcoming blues music performances in Chicago.

Please enjoy our video with this story and post a comment to tell us what you think.

Copyright 2008

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