Sun 28 Sep 2008
Robert Nighthawk, Maxwell Street 1964
Today's show is called Maxwell Street Blues in tribute to Mike Shea's legendary film on Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free, which at long last has been re-released by Shanachie Records. And This Is Free was filmed over the course of sixteen Sundays on Chicago's Maxwell Street in 1964. The Maxwell Street open air market was a seven- to ten-block area in Chicago that from the 1920s to the middle 1960's played host to various blues musicians — both professional and amateur — who performed right on the street for tips from passerbys. Maxwell Street is an east-west street that intersects with Halsted Street just south of Roosevelt Road. Although there were many fine stationary department stores located in it, the area's most notable feature was its open air market, precursor to the flea market scene in Chicago. One could almost buy anything there, legal and illegal. In need of jobs and quick cash, fledgling entrepreneurs came to Maxwell Street – many say it was the largest open-air market in the country – to earn their livelihood. In 1994, the Maxwell Street Market was moved by the City of Chicago to accommodate expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was relocated a few blocks east to Canal Street and renamed the New Maxwell Street Market.
Among those who got their start on Maxwell Street were Little Walter, Earl Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor among many others. Those that appear in the film include Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Jim Brewer and Arvella Gray, all of whom were recorded performing live on the street. All the music recorded during the filming was issued domestically in 2000 on the Rooster label on the 3-CD set And This Is Maxwell Street and we will be hearing several of these cuts on today's program. We will also be playing a number of cuts from the Ora Nelle label which was run by Bernard Abrams from his Maxwell Street Radio and Record shop located at 831 Maxwell Street, tracks by Big John Wrencher, Maxwell Street Jimmy, John Lee Granderson and James Brewer (all long time fixtures on the Street) plus some pre-war sides that reference Maxwell Street. In addition we will be playing excerpts from an interview with Gordon Quinn who was the sound engineer on And This Is Free.
Blind James Brewer and Gospel Group, Maxwell Street, 1964, Photo by Paul Oliver
Ira Berkow, who wrote the book Maxwell Street: Survival In A Bazaar, and contributes to the booklet, described Maxwell Street 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, was so named 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."
Back in 1960 Bjorn Englund and Donad R. Hill documented the blues on Maxwell street by recording some of the street's stalwarts including Arvella Gray, Daddy Stovepipe, king Davis and James Brewer. The recordings were issued in 1962 on the Heritage album Blues From Maxwell Street. The album is long out of print (i don't own this record so if anyone knows where I can get a copy let me know!) but the notes by Paul Oliver are worth quoting as they paint an evocative portrait of an era that has long passed. "At 1330 on South Halsted there is a minor intersection. The corners are crowded with people and temporary halls at anytime, but especially on Sunday, for the narrow road that cuts across Halsted is Maxwell and on Sunday morning the Maxwell Street Market is at its busiest. Maxwell Street is at once a sad an exciting place. The walls are blackened and the paint has peeled off the ill-fitting doors; garbage lies thick in the gutters and the narrow side alleys are littered with the refuse of years. To the West, the street loses its identity in the depressing anonymity of the bleak, poverty-struck roads that cross it; to the East it is an almost impassable market of stalls that suddenly give way to a vast, horizonless plain of mud and rubble and debris where an Expressway will sweep Southwards in the undated future. Amongst the rough-clad women who grope through the piles of discarded clothes and the tough, unsmiling men who pick their way through the wires, cables and electrical parts laid out haphazardly on the trestles – amongst the loiterers, the occasional sightseers and the pickpockets – are the beggars, as many as there are to be found in the shadows of the churches in a Southern Italian town, or along the shrouded streets of an "Arab Quarter." Beggars – but with one striking, exhilarating difference. These are not wheedling seekers after alms with cries of "baksheesh" or "Gawd Bless yer, guv" but proud men, creative artists, singers of the blues who accept the dimes and quarters as tokens of esteem for their paying and singing. If the blues in general has tended to become more sophisticated in recent years Maxwell Street exists as a living storehouse of the folk blues, the blues of the rambling man. And in its few hundred yards is pictured the life story of the blues singer of the streets, from the children who stand wide-eyed to the singers of their to choice to the young men who are trying their luck and their talent on the critical audience of the market; from the tough music and manner of the street singer of many years to the fading abilities to the old men who have played in the street in all weathers for more years then they can count."
Today's program opens with a pair pf pre-war cuts. Papa Charlie Jackson is known to have busked around Chicago in the early 1920's, playing for tips on Maxwell Street, as well as the city's Westside clubs beginning in 1924. He cut some 70 sides between 1924-1934, most for the Paramount label. His "Mawell Street Blues" shows he was well aquintated with the seedier side of the street:
Because Maxwell Street's so crowded on a Sunday, you can hardly passed through
There's Maxwell Street Market, got Water Street Market too
If you ain't got no money, the women got nothing for you to do
I got the Maxwell Street blues, mama and it just won't pay
Because the Maxwell Street women, going to carry me to my grave
I live six twenty-four Maxwell, mama and I'm taking about you
Little is known about his background. Blind Percy was likely Joe Taggart who recorded mainly gospel but sound more worldly as he too sings about those Maxwell Street women on "Fourteenth Street Blues:"
Fourteenth Street women, don't mean a man no good
Go out and get full of liquor, wake up the whole neighborhood
Today's show features several tracks from the Ora Nelle label which was founded in 1947 by Bernard Abrams who operated Maxwell Street Radio and Record shop located at 831 Maxwell Street. Two 78's were released; "I Just Keep Loving Her" (Ora Nelle 711) and "Money Taking Woman" (Ora Nelle 712). The label's name supposedly came from Walter's girlfriend. These were Walter's first recordings. Additional recordings were made by Jimmy Rogers (also his first), Boll Weavil, Sleepy John Estes, Johnnie Temple which were not released at the time. All of the Ora Nelle recordings can be found on the CD Chicago Boogie 1947 on the P-Vine label, a reissue of an album originally issued on George Paulus' Barrelhouse label in the 1970's. Boll Weevil (Willie McNeal) cut a pair of acetates for the label circa 1947-48, including "Christmas Time Blues" b/w "Thinkin' Blues", and recorded once more in 1956 for another mom and pop label called Club 51.
One-Armed harmonica player Big John Wrencher was a recognizable fixture of Maxwell Street. Wrencher was a traveling musician, playing throughout Tennessee and neighboring Arkansas from the late 1940's to the early 1950's. In 1958 Wrencher lost his left arm in a car crash in Memphis. By the early 1960's he had moved North to Chicago and quickly became a regular fixture on Maxwell Street, always working on Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to nearly 3:00 in the afternoon. His first recordings surfaced on a pair of Testament albums from the 1960's, featuring Big John in a sideman role behind Robert Nighthawk. He cut the excellent Maxwell Street Alley Blues (recorded in 1969 and issued in 1978) for the Barrelhouse label (reissued on CD on the P-Vine label) and cut Big John's Boogie for the British Big Bear label in 1975. He also cut a 45 and we play "Memphis To Maxwell Street" from that record. Big John Wrencher passed in 1977.
Nighthawk's performances form the centerpiece of the recordings made on An This Is Maxwell Street. Nighthawk is present on 22 of the 30 selections. Nighthawk really stretches out on some of his old classics including the stunning medley of his two biggest hits "Anna Lee/Sweet Black Angel" as well as a storming reprise of his "Take it Easy Baby" which he first cut in 1937 for Bluebird. Nighthawk shows off his wide repertoire playing Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush", Dr. Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues" and Percy Mayfield's "I Need Love So Bad." In an interview done by Mike Bloomfield, Nighthawk, reflected on what brought him back to Maxwell Street: "Lately I went back to Maxwell St.- I been playing off and on for 24 years now. Most all music more or less starts right off from Maxwell St. and so you wind up going back there. …See it's more hard to play out in the street than it is in a place of business, but you have more fun in the street, looks like. Well, so many things you can see, so many different things going on, I get a kick out of it, I guess."
We also play tracks by Maxwell Street stalwarts Arvella Gray, James Brewer, John Lee Granderson and Maxwell Street Jimmy. Arvella Gray made his first recordings in 1960 (released on the Decca and Heritage labels) and in early 1964 he made sides for his own Gray label, selling the 45's on the street. He was also recorded by a team from Swedish Radio the same year. He was regular performer on Maxwell Street on Sundays. Gray's only album, 1972's The Singing Drifter was reissued on the Conjuroo label in 2005. James Brewer aka Blind James Brewer ("My mother didn't name me ‘Blind', she named me ‘Jim'") was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, moved to Chicago in the 1940s spending the latter part of his life busking and performing both blues and religious songs at blues and folk festivals, on Chicago's Maxwell Street and other venues. He too was recorded by Swedish Radio, cut sides for the Heritage label, Testament plus cut the full-length albums Jim Brewer for Philo and Tough Luck for Earwig. In addition to the full length Hard Luck John (issued posthumously in 1998), Tennessee bluesman John Lee Granderson cut sides on other Testament compilations with further sides appearing on various anthologies. Among those Granderson played with were Robert Nighthawk, Big Joe Williams and Daddy Stovepipe. Charles Thomas aka Maxwell Street Jimmy, wrote Pete Welding was "one of the finest and most expressive of blues performers who regularly work the street…In his dark, urgent, powerful singing and rhythmically incisive guitar playing are strong, pungent echoes of his youth in the Mississippi delta, that spawning ground of so many great bluesmen." Jimmy recorded little, his best being his lone album, his long out of print self-titled release for Elektra in 1965. Welding's liner notes to the album paint a vivid portrait of Maxwell Street in the 1960's:"Every Sunday morning from late spring to early autumn–whenever, in fact, the weather is warm and clement–the pungent, earthy sound of the traditional blues rings loudly through the streets of Chicago. In the city's bustling open-air Maxwell Street flea market area, where one can haggle for anything form high-button shoes to a winnowing machine, the cries of the hawkers and vendors mingle sharply with the acrid, pain-filled shouts of the blues singer and the fervent moans of the sidewalk evangelist. Through most of contemporary America, street singing is a fast disappearing folk art. Municipal legislation and the compulsory licensing of peddlers have seen to that in most large US cities, and the days of the itinerant sidewalk minstel seem sadly though inevitably numbered. Except, that is, in Chicago. If anything, the art appears to be thriving here. It's tied directly, or course, to the continued flourishing of the Maxwell Street market as a vigorous facet of Chicago culture that has refused to give up the ghost in the face of urban renewal, increasing cultural homogeneity and other aspects of modern 'progress'."
Carrie Robinson, Maxwell Street 1964