Sweet Home Chicago: The Geography of the Blues

Post-trip review and reflections

Brian Tomaszewski

 

"The blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits."

- Willie Dixon

 

 

About

 

This webpage reviews a field trip that me and my wife Michelle created and implemented for the American Association of Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Chicago, IL on March 8, 2006. The trip was designed to explore blues geography and history in Chicago.

 

Setting up the trip

 

Planning the trip took several months. We needed to find sites that would be interesting and widely appealing. Although blues music is typically thought of as something to go and experience at night in a smoky bar, we decided to do the trip during the day to avoid numerous potential problems with taking a large group of people out in the city. After some searching, we decided to only visit one site, the location of Chess records studios.

 

Advertising the Trip

 

The following was the trip description used to promote the trip in the AAG bulletin:

Sweet Home Chicago: The Geography of the Blues
Wednesday, March 8; 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Organizer/Leader: Brian Tomaszewski, Penn State University; Michelle Tomaszewski, Penn State-Altoona
Trip Capacity: 20
Cost/Person: $10 (includes admission fees, no meals included)

This trip will explore the historical roots of blues music in Chicago from its rural origins in the Mississippi delta region, through its transformation into an urban sound in post WW-II Chicago. It will also provide a general overview of how the city of Chicago is acknowledging this cultural gem of the city today. The trip will begin with a 30 minute, brown-bag (feel free to bring lunch with you) audio-visual presentation on the origins of the music, the migrations during the 1940’s and 1950’s that brought the sounds of the south to Chicago, and a brief review of the great practitioners of Chicago blues, both past and present. The trip will then visit Chess Records Studio, the legendary recording studio where the giants of blues music such as Muddy Waters made recordings that defined the Chicago blues sound. Information for further exploration of the blues in Chicago will also be provided. Participants will travel via public transportation to Chess Records Studio, so please bring $4 (must be exact change) to cover the cost of transportation.

 

According to the AAG, our trip was the only field trip to sell out, and have people on a waiting list to get in. In fact, we had five people join us as “walk ons” for the trip.

 

For comparison, the following is a link listing all field trips offered during the 2006 AAG meeting: http://www.aag.org/annualmeetings/Chicago2006/sp_events.cfm

 

The Pre-Field Trip Talk

 

Before going on the field trip, I gave a brief overview discussion of the blues. This included sound clips, and maps that were used to give a broader perspective and context of blues geography in Chicago.

 

A PDF of the presentation can be accessed here.

 

 

The pre-presentation talk

 

Chess Records

 

We then took a city bus down to 2120 Michigan Ave, the location of Chess Records studios during the late 1950’s and 1960’s, known today as the Landmark. This site is run as a non-profit museum/education center through the Willie Dixon Foundation. Their goals are to promote knowledge of blues history and heritage, and to help today’s blues musicians with the complexities and challenges of the music business.

 

Website: http://www.bluesheaven.com/landmark.htm

 

The main person who runs the Chess records, Mr. Kevin Mayberry, was very helpful in arranging the trip, and is very knowledgeable about blues music. Mr. Mayberry served as tour guide once the AAG group arrived.

 

Kevin Mayberry talking during the tour

 

 

The famous stair case where all the musicians who recorded at Chess passed through

 

 

Trip participants checking out the life-mask collection of blues artists kept at Chess

 

 

Artifacts in the Chess museum; Kevin Mayberry talking about the collections

 

Fernando Jones

 

As a special treat for our group, Kevin Mayberry was able to have a local blues musician and educator/scholar named Fernando Jones come to Chess and play music, tell stories and answer questions about blues music for the field trip group. This made for a perfect ending to the trip.

 

Fernando Jones in action!

 

 

For more information about Fernando Jones, check out his website:

 

http://www.fernandojones.com/

 

 

Reflections

 

The trip was a real success. The field trip group was composed of a wide range of people from all over the world, and they all seemed to enjoy the experience. One gentleman from Spain indicated that the trip was a “dream come true” for him. Proper planning and scoping made the trip work well for the four hour time slot it was given. If you are interested in blues music, next time you are in Chicago, I highly recommend you visit Chess records studios.

 

 

Brian Tomaszewski (bmt139@psu.edu)

State College, PA

March 2006