Saturday, February 25, 2006

And This is Free

I'm so happy that I finally visited Chicago.

Chi Town! Yes.

Cold, clean-lined, expansive, full of surprising architecture and unusual ethnic dining. I had a delicious Swedish breakfast one morning, a delicious Austrian one the next. The sausage-eating peoples of Europe have kept their culinary identities in tact in Chicago. The lake was icy and imposing. You can tell a lot about a town by its hipsters. Let me say that, in Chicago, they are especially attentive to sartorial detail and also polite. I saw the parking garage that appears on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. Interesting!

But what I really wanted to know was: What's the deal with Chicago blues? I knew only this: Blacks came up from the South seeking work. Then somehow Junior Wells happened. Then Dan Akroyd was in The Blues Brothers. The End.

So I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have stumbled upon a special exhibit on the blues at the Chicago Library, where I glimpsed excerpts from a 1964 documentary called And This Is Free by filmmaker Mike Shea. I was bowled over by amazing cinema verite scenes of blues and gospel musicians rocking in the city's now-defunct Maxwell Street bazaare. Raw, black-and-white field-recording-style images of casual musical nirvana on street corners. I had to go to the special 8th floor archives and view it in full. I did. It blew my mind.

Every Sunday, Chicago's Maxwell Street was a nexus of hucksters, preachers, street mystics, snake-oil salesmen, teenage rock-and-rollers and legendary blues players. Shea captured hours of itinerant bluesman Robert Nighthawk sitting in an alley, talking shit and slinging blues with aloof power, casually stinging the air with slide electric guitar, backed by just rhythm guitar and drums. The amps are on the street, plugs running into windows. A crowd of well-tailored black dudes drink beers, teeter and groove along and yell out ("Woyk widdit! Get up on it! Shake it but don' breakit!") while sexy beehived black chicks dance in mini-skirts. A smattering of white hipsters dressed like the Velvet Underground try to look like they're not terrified. It has to be seen. Has to!

I learned later it can also be heard in full: And This Is Maxwell Street contains the complete sound recordings of Shea's documentary. It's amazing. I am a believer. A believer in Chicago. A believer in the blues. Listen to "Back Off Jam" by Nighthawk for evidence of the upside of making deals with the Devil.

More: An outdoor street scene featuring singer Carrie Robinson, prim in a white church dress, wailing on "Power to Live Right" and inspiring another woman to jump, leap, shout and dance on the sidewalk, possessed of the Holy Spirit as a crowd of onlookers claps and cries. Perhaps the most moving is a brief snippet of Fannie Brewer, an obese, blind folk-gospel singer who is almost completely inert, wedged in a door front on a chair. She sings out of the side of her mouth, barely moving except for fingers plucking the guitar. "I Shall Overcome" would make Harry Smith cry.

And This is Free is out of print on VHS, but somehow the great folks at The Video Beat! have it on DVD. Just order it, you need it. You can see some images from it here.

I leave you with the one-armed harmonica genius Big John Wrencher. Woyk widdit!

1 comment:

Perseo said...

Hi. Great comment. I'd like to buy the DVD "And this is Free" but I can't find it. Do you know where can I find it? Saludos!