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Really The Blues

An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 5)

A self-described "naive white kid from the suburbs," Bruce says, "I grew up in Michigan, in Cincinnati and Wisconsin but I came to Chicago specifically for the blues. I had just graduated from college, I was 22. I never thought I was going to come here to stay forever. I got hooked very fast but I never thought this would be my whole life."

Iglauer started Alligator because "I was a fan then, I'm a fan now. I've gotten to know record artists who I've loved, admired, and whose music I am moved by. It's a hugely emotionally rewarding business."

Not a die-hard purist, Iglauer nevertheless bristles with annoyance at the superficial exploitation of blues, epitomized by its use as background music for product advertising. "Like jazz, it has been able to be adapted into the music and the popular culture vocabulary. At least the outside of it has," the record producer says. "It's frustrating to me how many television commercials I see now that use that little riff that people associate with a Muddy Waters record as shorthand for 'we're going to get gritty; we're going to get serious; we're going to get down with our own bad selves.' It's like holding up a sheepskin and saying, 'Here's a sheep.' It's very much the outside of what's going on."

Iglauer laments the way the music has been adulterated for popular consumption: "Blues has more and more been perceived as a simple structure on which you can do classy guitar solos. Blues, as a music, is first a music of rhythm and words, of tension and release. The great blues artists have not been great because they could whip out a terrific solo. In fact, many of the most popular blues records have no solos at all. It's singing from beginning to end. And it's always been about storytelling and the ability to create a catharsis in the listener."

Like Iglauer, Barry Dolins helps bring blues to the masses. He is the founder of the internationally renowned Chicago Blues Festival, an annual four-day panorama of blues styles and talent that runs the gamut from the famous to the unknown. Last year, performers on five stages drew a total audience of more than 700,000, making the extravaganza the largest blues event in the United States.

Dolins was an instructor at Chicago's Loyola University when he wrote a grant proposal for a series of six blues minifestivals, in 1984, during the administration of Harold Washington. The third festival, an outdoor event, turned out to be the precursor of the current blues spectacular. "I've been here ever since," the 49-year-old Dolins says.

Over the years, Dolins has presented such artists as Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Addressing the ongoing popularity of the blues, Barry says, "The late Mama Yancy told me 25 years ago that the blues is people letting their hair down and having a good time. That translates across all race, creeds and colors."

Dolins, deputy director of the mayor's Office of Special Events, points out that Chicago's heritage of recording has helped make the city the blues mecca. "This is the independent-record-label capital of the world, going all the way back to the 1920s up through the postwar era with companies like VeeJay and Chess."

"Even today," Dolins adds, "Alligator, Earwig and Blind Pig are centered here in Chicago. So, with the record companies and clubs located here, this is where the performers came to live." With more than two dozen blues clubs in Chicago, "there's a blues festival in Chicago every night of the year," he says.

But as the ranks of old bluesmen diminish, who will come up to keep that eternal festival alive? A new generation of artists is providing the energy that will generate the momentum necessary to sustain the music in the new century. Three such hot commodities are Keb' Mo', the 1996 Grammy winner, who records for Sony #550 Music/Okeh; Paul Delay, who records for Evidence Records; and Deborah Coleman, who records for Blind Pig Records.


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