I’ve been mesmerized by the thought of seeing the streets where Blues was born, hearing the authentic sounds of Chicago and Memphis, washing my face in Mississippi and whispering a humble “thank you” at the last resting places of my greatest influencers. That, and so much more had happened on a journey that continued my search for the Blues and reinforced it tenfold.
At some point in one’s life, we all get the “I need rest Blues”. Be it from work, family, stress or just the constant repeating picture that surrounds us. When it happened to me I could not think of any better place to rest my soul in than places where the music was born.
It is then I’ve planned to visit Chicago, Memphis and Austin as my first attempt to see, hear and understand the Blues more through being there and feeling it. Few months later, I got on a plane and took off…
The solitude of flying… Done it more times than lived years and still get excited about it. Something about the fact that so many faces are there in one snake-shaped corridor filled with gates and exits. At the same time I’ve never started conversation on a plane. I understand why they do but never cared for them due to the adventure inside my head being my selfishly own. This time, however, I was looking out for a 98 year old Bluesman in a wrinkled suit and a rugged case-less guitar…Those who fit the description don’t fly though, do they? I hoped to meet many during this Blues Journey.
I have deep respect for people who have a dream or something that feels close to it. These things motivate, inspire and influence you to act towards it’s achievement. It never matters what you enjoy but the fact that something moves you to work hard instead of standing on a street corner is in itself an achievement. Any interest is the same way that require you put in work towards it. Mine is Blues guitar and I am nowhere near obsessed with it as much as I should have been. This Blues Journey is as close to my dream as I’ve ever felt. Mostly because of the printed Buddy Guy show tickets that I held in my pockets, partially because of the streets that these Bluesmen walked on which I will walk on and the Ol’ Man River.
It is difficult not to idolize someone when part of your dreams are people. I don’t think I have that problem (still want to be nobody but myself) but I could feel how the visit to Legends made me anxious. I’ve written to everyone I could think of except for BG himself and bartenders. I was excited and it was sincere therefore a little obsessive. I don’t know of a “dream come true” story that didn’t involve various levels of obsessive. It’s exciting… I hope I can bring some value to the entire thing or at least make somebody smile along the way.
My opening act was Chicago, a place where Chicago Blues had crossed over, a place where Muddy Waters played on the streets and in the clubs. A place where Chess Records had given way to some of the best musicians in history that influenced so many other greatest artists. I flew in singing Sinatra’s “Chicago” with a gleam in my eye and a grin on my face. Haven’t slept for dozens of hours, I figured that I’ll get my rest later and went straight to the program planned for the trip.
Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett Grave
This was a very important place for me to visit. Howlin’ Wolf was the first Bluesman that made me wonder what the Blues was and made me read and listen to it. I think that if I had a choice to see any late musician, it would be Chester Burnett. So many things about that man strike a 7th chord with me. Next to him, at the site lays the love of Chester’s life, Lillie Burnett. The woman without whom, much of it all would not happen. She was equally deserving the credit for the impact that Wolf had placed in music as he did.
The birthplace of the Chicago Blues. Maxwell Street is where many of the Bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Muddy Waters came out to play on the street before they got noticed and went on to record for the music labels. At the time, Maxwell market was one of the most thriving places in the city. The large presence of people in general, made it a sought after spot for musicians and entertainers. Not much of it is left and the majority of the street is now a part of UIC campus. Still, the block that is being kept as a historical district, holds much of treasured information on boards along the street as well as the buildings that have seen the greatest times of the Chicago Blues.
Chess Records Studio and Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation
A special place in the hearts of so many, the Chess Records is probably the most important place in the Blues history, birth of Rock’n’Roll and the following of all Rock music. It is here the greatest of Chicago Blues, spent time together under the management of Leonard and Phil Chess, while Willie Dixon, wrote songs for them. Now, as great legacy, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is a home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. A place of preserving the relics of the Blues as well as support looking to get music education.
It may have been the time of day (night) or the time of year (January), but standing there, in front of the greatest landmark in Blues music, did not feel grand. In fact, it felt like I should’ve called a maintenance guy to fix a bent head of Etta James silhouette on the fence and ripped flag alongside Willie’s Garden of Blues. The whole thing felt like a retired person living on life-support instead of an immortal place of inspiration and music power. Hope at some point it will change, even more so, I hope that it was the time of day and the season.
“The gates of Heaven must be open, I think I saw an Angel just walk by…”
If you will ever have an opportunity to see Buddy Guy play live – grab it by the throat. If you will do it while in his Chicago Blues Club Legends, consider your life worth spent. Hours go by unnoticed while the members of the Damn Right Blues Band as well as other Blues artists mingle with guests. The staff is helpful and friendly, there are things to read, to see, people to talk to, food to enjoy and Buddy Brew is four letter “o” good. The show, the music, the atmosphere. Everything about it makes you want to come back and live through it one more time. If I will live to see Chicago once again, I will rush to see Legends and the Buddy Guy’s Band one more time.
The music that you can hear in the club, you can’t hear on the radio. However, Buddy still got his Mojo working and fortunately the Lord wants him to stay a little longer.
It’s all about the Blues on the Beale street. Good food, great music, misty mind and the Blues. Walking that street, realizing how much it had seen, how many feet stepped on it and how great the music there was, is at the very least humbling. The history behind these buildings and the spirit that they represent and continue to keep alive is as valuable to history as any of the invasions, treaties or progressions.
Billy Gibbons, Chuck Berry, Rufus Thomas Jr., Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and so many more have dedicated entire songs to Memphis. Being there, I could see why, when you stroll it’s streets, a spirit follows you, it plays guitar for you, it sings the good ol’ tunes for you and it invites you to a dance. A dance of forgetting who you are and what your troubles may be. Welcoming and embracing dance that shelters you from the Blues with the Blues.
Memphis, among other stops is a place to visit and should among the tops of any list.
Forgive me if I start to cry, that’s how I got to Memphis…
Gibson Guitar Factory
Walking around Memphis downtown, I saw a familiar word sitting on top of a large corporate building. The word had “Gibson” on it but I dismissed the thought of it being the Gibson guitar makers and went on looking for places to see. At some point, I circled the block and was now standing in front of the main entrance to that building, barely believing that it was a Gibson Corporation manufacturing factory right in the middle of Memphis and more so, right in the middle of my journey.
I ran inside, up to the first person with a badge asking for a tour that was starting that very minute. Gasping for air and probably looking like a loon, I got me a ticket and took a tour of a guitar factory made by Gibson. From the square blocks of wood, to an ideal instruments of art at a price of $4k+. I think I may have overstayed my welcome in the guitar shop, but I just could not let go of that ES-175 and the staff was extremely welcoming and patient with my inner child.
Rock & Soul Museum
Across the street from Gibson guitar factory was the Rock & Soul Museum which I knew about and was eager to visit. It feels like R&S is a high quality tribute museum that covers a very wide range of legacies from the Delta to Elvis to Bruce Springsteen. In it, you can find an old plow and a jukebox from the 60’s. You can see one of many B.B. King’s Lucilles and Joe Perry’s ostrich-looking B.C. Rich-Bich.
Most things about my experience in the museum felt good and information felt valuable. It only lacked character, looking for one single thing to mentioned or show that would make me feel “Yes! This is what R&S was about”, I found none. Maybe it’s because of rock & soul, everything in it is about either one or another or something in between. Like this Dulcimer, given to Elvis Presley by June Carter Cash…
Sun was for Memphis what Chess was for Chicago and even more. Sam Phillips, the founder of the recording label gave allowance to record virtually anything in his company. Many visitors went to some length of extreme by recording their weddings, snoring and thoughts. It is here, Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis Presley were first discovered. It is here, the first sound of overdriven guitar was born and it is here the history of music unfolded. A welcoming place with immense character and an awesome staff. I may have even had a crush on our tour guide.
National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel
A collection of priceless exhibits from 1600’s till modern day focusing on the Civil Rights movement located in a former motel where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Something is properly fucked up if people can cause so much harm upon each other for personal gain. I could never understand it, never grasp the possibility of acting that way and inside the memorial museum, my heart wept. An omni-powerful place with atmosphere that can move the spirit of even the strongest characters.
Memphis was once the capital of cotton export of the world having over 75% of all global cotton shipped out on the Mississippi. Washing my face in it took me on a ride down the Ol’ Man River. A history ride much of which I hope no one will have to ever experience again.
Austin, Texas Blues
Memorial Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue
Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute commissioned by the city of Austin. The flowers in his hand are fresh and his music is heard all around in the air. While Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, this is one of the solitude-filled places in Austin. All over things and people are rushing towards some ambition while, ironically, this man is standing calmly at peace while his music continues to influence millions. Thanks Stevie.
In the End
I have found what I was looking for. I have felt the presence, heard the feeling and gathered memories for a lifetime. We are in charge of our own memories and if tomorrow all else in my world will fail, I will have the Blues and a handful of moments to last me another lifetime. Thank you everyone who has been a part of this great Blues Journey.