The Maxwell Street Market and urban blues

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Lady singing the Blues The roiling crowds provided local musicians with a captive audience, and they responded by creating the modern urban blues. From the time Papa Charlie Jackson recorded “Maxwell Street Blues” in 1926, it was, in the words of Ira Berkow, “the most important area in the most important city for modern blues in America.” Artists like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor, Moody Jones, Johnny Young, and Johnny Williams all began their careers playing in the open-air Sunday Market. Singing and playing the blues They plugged in their guitars to make themselves heard above the street din, but at the same time they revived the emotional country style of their Mississippi Delta forebears. They appealed to the nostalgia of a generation of African-Americans who had undertaken the Great Migration to cities like Chicago, but still located their spiritual home in the south. A host of lesser-known musicians plied their trade at the Maxwell Street Market as well, often toiling in obscure poverty but contributing to one of the most vibrant blues atmospheres in the country. Most notoriously, Robert Nighthawk, whose skills were said to rival those of Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, was still playing for pennies in the market up to his death in 1967.

By the 1990s a generation of blues musicians whose roots went back to the 1950s still played the market. Johnnie Mae Dunson, Frank “Little Sonny” Scott, Jr., Piano C. Red, Bobby “Top Hat” Davis, and Clarence “Little Scotty” Scott were among the legends to grace the makeshift open-air stage (the “Juketown Bandstand”) at the corner of Halsted and Maxwell.

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