Wed 23 Jul 2008
After languishing out of print for many years, Mike Shea's legendary film on Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free, has finally been reissued by Shanachie and I imagine news of this will stir up quite a bit of excitement in blues circles. Shanachie has done an exemplary job with the packaging; housed in a soft covered fold out set is a two disc set containing the 50 minute documentary And This Is Free, the 30 minute documentary Maxwell Street: A Living Memory, some fascinating archival footage, an interview with sound man Gordon Quinn, a separate CD of performances by artists associated with Maxwell Street plus an illustrated 36 page booklet.
The history of the film and music recorded by Mike Shea over the course of sixteen Sundays on Chicago's Maxwell Street in 1964 has an interesting if convoluted history, and I find it odd that none of this is mentioned in the lengthy booklet. Disappointed by the film's reception, Shea let the tapes languish in a warehouse for years until the 1970's when all the footage not included in the original edit was thrown out. At some point a VHS of the film was issued but I'm unclear exactly when. Fortunately the audio tapes had been stored separately so all the original music had been preserved. Rounder records first put some of this music out in 1980 under Robert Nighthawk's name as Live On Maxwell Street 1964. At the time of release these recordings were incorrectly credited, both for the songs, publishing and for much of the personnel. It also turns out that the performances themselves were edited, giving two decades of listeners an incomplete and historically incorrect picture of those recordings as they were originally captured. Finally in May of 1999 the 2-CD set And This Is Maxwell Street was released in Japan on the P-Vine label produced by Studio IT and issued in 2000 in the US by Rooster Records with an additional CD containing a 44 minute interview of Nighthawk conducted by Mike Bloomfield. The set contains all the original unedited recordings made in conjunction with the film.
While music makes up much of the backdrop of And This Is Free, all the performances are truncated and it's sad to think of all the amazing footage that was lost. Still the 50 minutes of And This Is Free is a fascinating, riveting street level view of this remarkable open air market, all the more important now that urban renewal has virtually erased it from existence. Ira Berkow, who wrote Maxwell Street: Survival In A Bazaar, and contributes to the booklet, described it this way: "It was a carnival, it was a bazaar, it was, as some believed and perhaps with some credibility, a thieves' den; it was also home to snake charmers, a horse that could count with a clop of his hoof, an "Indian chief" in war bonnet and penny loafers, honest businessmen, the ladies of the night (and morning and afternoon), Gypsies, Jews, Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Latinos, blacks. As well as the birthplace of a number of prominent Americans. And this, more or less, just for starters." Hound Dog Taylor, a veteran of Maxwell Street, had this to say: "You used to get out on Maxwell Street on a Sunday Morning and pick you out a good spot, babe. Dammit, we'd make more money than I ever looked at. Put you out a tub, you know, and put a pasteboard in there, like a newspaper. I'm telling you, Jewtown was Jumpin' like a champ, jumpin' like mad on Sunday morning." Jewtown, as the area was also known because, as Lori Grove writes in her excellent essay Historic Maxwell Street, the "Jewish immigrants were the largest and longest-standing ethnic group in the Maxwell Street neighborhood" who "established the old world marketplace and its reputation as a place where bargains could be found." This part of Maxwell street is evocatively told in Maxwell Street: A Living Memory through the stories of the children and grandchildren of the original Jewish immigrants and through some wonderful archival film and photographs.
Many will gravitate to the film because of the music and indeed the street was a mecca for bluesman trying to hustle a few bucks from the passing crowd. The music is raw and wild with plenty of ambiance from the passing crowds as we briefly see Robert Nighthawk delivering a blistering blues boogie in a back alley to a raucous crowd and a gritty slide drenched cover Dr. Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues", a too brief snippet of the great Johnny Young, Arvella Gray flaying away at his steel guitar as he delivers his signature version of "John Henry" incorporating references to Maxwell and Halstead streets. Gospel permeates the street, from street corner preachers of all stripes to Carrie Robinson backed by a full electric band, dancing like a whirling dervish, as she belts out a testifying "Power To Live Right", Fannie Brewer's lovely, introspective "I Shall Overcome" and Jim Brewer and group closing with a rousing "I'll Fly Away." George Paulus, owner of Barrelhouse Records and St. George Records, contributes a wonderful essay, Maxwell Street Blues, Mojos And Chickens, which gives a vivid portrait of the Maxwell Street blues scene as seen through the eyes of a then thirteen year old blues fan. D. Thomas Moon adds the companion essay, Talkin' 'Bout Maxwell Street, filled with recollections by former bluesman Johnny Williams, Delmark owner Bob Koester and the late Jimmie Lee Robinson among others. Adding to the overall feel is some amazing archival film of Maxwell Street in the 1940's, Casey Jones, the Chicken Man (a 95 year old who could hypnotize his chicken) and some remarkable footage of the ancient Daddy Stovepipe, complete with top hat, harmonica rack and guitar, who had been a fixture on the street since before World War II.
The CD includes performances by many who played on the street including Robert Nighthawk, Big John Wrencher, Daddy Stovepipe, John Lee Granderson, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers and others. A number of the tracks were recorded crudely at the Maxwell Street Radio Store by Bernard Abrams ( he preferred Perry Como) who issued them on his Ora Nelle imprint (named after Little Walter's girlfriend). While the music is uniformly excellent it also underscores a missed opportunity. Perhaps it's a licensing issue, but it would have been nice if the two CD's worth of music issued as And This Is Maxwell Street could have been included. Now that would be the ultimate Maxwell Street set! Also, as I mentioned earlier, it's a bit odd that this music is not mentioned at all.
All in all, with a few caveats, Shanachie has done a wonderful job with And This Is Free: The Life And Times Of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street, a lovingly packaged, trip back to a time and place that has been all but erased except in the vivid memories and footage contained in this small time capsule. Like the old Beale Street, Times Square and sadly, Mike Shea himself, Maxwell Street is all but gone. As Gatemouth Brown sang in his ode to Beale Street ("Beale Street Ain't Beale Street No More"): "My street is gone, gone to come back no more.”