Monday, July 16, 2012

A ‘blues’ museum on Block 37? They might as well bring back the ice rink

I like the idea of museums, particularly when they pay tribute to something that so many of us know little about.

I also do not have a knee-jerk reaction against real estate developers. And I appreciate just how harmful the story surrounding “Block 37” has been to Chicago’s public image.

HAVING WRITTEN ALL that, let me also say that I think the idea of a museum devoted to telling the story of blues music to be built right in the heart of downtown Chicago (in the block just east of the Daley Center) could well be one of the dumbest ideas this city has ever contemplated.

Somehow, the idea of paying tribute to musicians such as Muddy Waters by erecting something in the heart of the downtown shopping district strikes me as being more oriented toward selling t-shirts – rather than telling the real human stories of the musicians who gave us the blues.

This is musical form where commercialism of any sorts can only trivialize the art form.

And I just can’t help but think that putting a “blues” museum on Block 37 would create a place that would have repulsed the real-life blues artists – even if I’m sure many of them would gladly have accepted any cash that would be generated by such a place.

KEEP IN MIND that I personally love listening to the blues – and I don’t mean rock ‘n’ roll with a heavy blues beat. Anybody who thinks that Eric Clapton is a bluesman, or that there was anything musically intriguing about the Blues Brothers, is probably the kind of person who would like a downtown Chicago blues museum.

They probably also enjoy the “set list from Hell” asked of too many blues musicians these days – the same dozen or so songs that invariably asks for “Sweet Home, Chicago” to be played as an encore.

I enjoy hearing that song every now and then, and will gladly put on my recording of it as performed by Magic Sam. Anybody else is just stunting the blues as a musical form when they try to play it – note for note – as Sam did. And yes, I know that it was Robert Johnson (who really deserves to be labelled as "God" rather than Clapton) who originally came up with the song.

I also believe that a downtown museum would wind up reinforcing those forces that have turned blues music into a musical museum-piece, rather than a thriving musical form being passed along throughout the generations.

TOO MANY WHITE people merely think of the blues as overly-intense guitar solos, while too many black people think of the blues as the music their great-grandparents listened to way back in the days of segregation.

Which is a shame!

Because when it comes to a recording that can make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, I’d say it is Elmore James’ performances of “Dust My Broom.”

There’s something about that guitar intro that is so eerie, yet all powerful. And even though I can match it note-for-note when I play my own guitar, mine sounds like a lame copy.

WHICH IS WHAT I would think of a downtown-based blues museum erected on a city block with a shopping center that is trying to be so upscale. It would be such a gross mismatch that the only people I could see going there would be tourists who literally wouldn’t know any better.

That is a real shame. Because the idea of a blues museum ought to be to inform the public about the music – not to spread a distorted, overly watered-down, form.

If there is to be a museum devoted to the blues, it probably is something that has to go in one of the neighborhoods of the great South Side – the place where such music was once the daily noise that could be heard coming from tavern after tavern.

Along with flat after flat from buildings in the Bronzeville neighborhood that once had way too many people jammed into them because the “establishment” didn’t want all those African-Americans living elsewhere – an attitude that spilled over into the music.

SUCH A MUSEUM could even wind up being an attraction to try to get people to visit those areas, and could help bolster their own economic development. If anything, it is why I respect the idea that some officials are trying to develop a museum to tell the story of gospel music.

The proposed Chicago Gospel Music Heritage Museum is scheduled/expected/desired to open by October at the one-time Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue – the place where such religious-inspired music allegedly was created.

Maybe the site of the one-time Checkerboard Lounge on 47th Street is a blues museum site possibility. I don’t know.

All I do know is that Block 37 seems like a stretch for such a facility. And if that’s the best idea that developers can come up with, then maybe we’d be better off if they just brought back that ice skating rink they used to erect every winter in the heart of downtown.


1 comment:

John Gorny said...

I volunteered to work for Gregg Parker and The Chicago Blues Museum in its infancy in the early1990's. I assisted in the construction, transportation and on site assembly of exhibits that were displayed at different blues festivals in Illinois and Michigan. I remember Mr. Parker saying that it was absurd to him that Chicago, the capital of the blues, did not have a "White House". This was one role he envisioned for the museum if it were built.

While I think building this "White House" at a location such as the old Checkerboard Lounge would be great in a poetic sense, I don't think such a location would be as easy to get to as a museum centrally located downtown. While the Checkerboard Lounge and other locations considered "sacred ground" may seem more appropriate in a sense, I think only die hard blues fans would be going there. Would their numbers be enough to support a museum? I think not.

Speaking from my own experience, the exhibits the museum displayed illustrated blues as Afro-American music and culture. Nothing about the Rolling Stones or Jimmy Page. White musicians were not excluded. They were represented by people like Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop.

As far as the blues museum being made to appear like it is more a commercial t-shirt selling enterprise and less a cultural or historic institution if located in Block 37, ultimately the visitors of the museum will decide what it is or is not. That is if a Chicago Blues Museum building can ever come to fruition.

John Gorny