Review by James “Skyy Dobro” Walker
Ask not what the Chicago Blues can do for you. Instead, ask what you can do for the Chicago Blues! That rephrased Presidential challenge could serve as a working author’s theme for former Kankakee area native, Karen Hanson.
She is the author of Today’s Chicago Blues, a guidebook for fans on the Chicago blues scene published in January of this year and released through Lake Claremont Press. The book gives blues fans an introduction to the clubs – both urban and suburban, artists, media, and creative figures.
In an interview, Karen shared her roots, “I grew up just outside of Kankakee IL, and I lived in Bradley and Bourbonnais for much of my adult life until I moved to New Lenox six years ago. I taught English for several years at Kankakee High School.”
Today, Hanson is a teacher of writing and literature at DeVry University in Tinley Park IL. She is also a freelance journalist who, for the past decade, has been a blues fan with special interests in Chicago Blues, blues harp, and acoustic blues.
“For Today's Chicago Blues, I wanted to go directly to the sources,” Hanson revealed. “I visited the clubs profiled in the book, I sat in the crowds and chatted with the fans, I spoke with musicians, club owners, DJs and record label owners. I wanted to present the Chicago Blues scene as a fan might experience it.”
“I have chapters on historical spots, cultural sites, and the blues record labels in Chicago. There’s a chapter on blues jams and radio shows. It’s a guide for fans, and it’s not meant to be evaluative, it’s descriptive,” Hanson added.
From aficionados of the Chicago Blues scene to emerging fans to the merely curious, all will find the book very useful and so much more than a recounting of history. “This was my intention,” said Hanson. “I wanted to make the blues accessible to everyone - from tourists and visitors to devoted fans. And, I wanted Chicago area people to wake up and realize what a great cultural treasure we have right in our neighborhoods.”
A good example of fostering accessibility is found in Chapter 3, “Lake Michigan Blues: The Chicago Blues Festival.” For the annual festival in June, one can get a copy of her book and start planning early. In the first sentence the reader is informed that the festival is “the largest free blues festival in the world.”
After a brief history mentioning the festival’s 1984 beginning and its roots in the old “ChicagoFest” of Mayors Bilandic and Byrne, Hanson provides a section titled “Planning Your Day.” Parking is always a problem in the Windy City, so Hanson lists the closest underground parking garages (“the Grant Park and Millennium Park garages”), and she suggests sensible alternatives, including public transportation. Other Chapter 3 topics include: Food and Beverages, Souvenirs, and a description of the five different performance Stages.
Hanson even offers a bonus blog at http://todayschicagoblues.blogspot.com. “One of the goals is to present news about clubs and artists. For example, I'll soon be visiting the Peppercorn Grille in Palos Hills and blogging about it. Eventually I hope to do a 2nd edition of Today's Chicago Blues.”
Hanson’s interest began with Muddy Waters, Chicago’s best know musician. Chapter 8, the last chapter, is 84 short bios of “major blues musicians who live and work in the Chicago area.” Her goal is to acquaint “visitors and novice blues fans not familiar with the performers by name.”
Of her beginnings as a blues fan, Hanson reported, “I got a CD player for my birthday and went shopping. I found a cassette tape of The Best Of Muddy Waters in a discount bin. I brought it home and played it and thought ‘Oh my God, where did this music come from?’ ....and it just mushroomed from there.”
Of her Chicago interest, Hanson said, “Today, it’s the only city in the world where you can hear live blues seven days a week, 365 days a year. More blues musicians live and work in the Chicago area than any other place on earth. Fans from all over the world visit Chicago especially to experience the blues. As a blues fan, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.”
Hanson concluded, “I'm available to give book readings and presentations on today’s Chicago Blues scene. E-mail me at email@example.com.”
Book Available: Amazon.com, Borders, Barnes & Noble, www.lakeclaremont.com
Samplings From Today's Chicago Blues:
“Blues clubs tend to be casual and intimate. In between sets, it’s common for band members to hang out at the bar, give autographs, and chat with fans.” (page 8)
“Restvale Cemetery, just southwest of Chicago city limits, is the final resting place for more than a dozen legendary musicians. The grave...for McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters)....” (pp 72-73)
“Bossman Blues Center...plays only two kinds of blues: gutbucket and monkey grip. Gutbucket is the down-home blues...from the delta. Monkey Grip is...when you fall in love with somebody and want to hold on forever....” (pp. 17-18)
“If you want to get your kicks—and your blues—on Route 66, then Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket is the place to go. [Located] 645 Joliet Road, Willowbrook.” (p. 43)
“Chicago was a logical place for...record labels specializing in African-American music....Here was a significant concentration...,both as musical talent and as a potential market for records.” (p. 91)
“Delmark Records, Alligator Records, and Earwig Music...Through the last several decades, these three labels adapted to changes in technology from vinyl to audiocassettes to CDs to MP3s....” (p. 93)
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