"When I was a teenager the blues helped me to understand the history of racial injustice in the Unites States. We don’t need it for that any more - with camera phones and Youtube, anyone who wants to can witness that injustice for themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to be interested."
Alan Harper: Chicago Blues Crossroads
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, British blues fan Alan Harper became a transatlantic pilgrim to Chicago. "I've come here to listen to the blues," he told an American customs agent at the airport, and listen he did, to the music in its many styles, and to the men and women who lived it in the city's changing blues scene. Harper's book “Waiting for Buddy Guy - Chicago Blues at the Crossroads” (2020) is an eloquent memoir conjures the smoky redoubts of men like harmonica virtuoso Big Walter Horton and pianist Sunnyland Slim. Venturing from stageside to kitchen tables to the shotgun seat of a 1973 Eldorado, he listens to performers and others recollect memories of triumphs earned and chances forever lost, of deep wells of pain and soaring flights of inspiration. Alan Harper born in Scotland, brought up in Africa and educated in England, Alan Harper was at school when he discovered the Chicago blues, and at university - where they had the best blues archive in the country - when he resolved to travel to the city and find the music for himself. This book chronicles his trips to Chicago as a young, blues-mad British fan, his experiences in the clubs, and his meetings with the unforgettable characters who made up the early-80s Chicago blues scene.
"The best thing about it was its friendliness – everyone seemed to be having a good time." (Photos: Alan Harper and drummer Fred Grady outside B.L.U.E.S, 1982 / Harper's book “Waiting for Buddy Guy”
It was a telling time for the music, and an era not chronicled before: when many of the older, Southern-born singers were still active, alongside a new generation, both black and white, some of whom had been brought up on soul and funk, while others had arrived at the blues via rock. The city’s black neighbourhoods were in decline, and many of the old clubs had disappeared. Hand-in-hand with white appreciation of the music came the phenomenon of the white-owned blues club, which rode to the rescue and saved many a musician’s career. It was an era in the history of the Chicago blues when its racial politics were thrown into sharp relief, along with that hardy perennial, the question of ‘authenticity’. The author embarked on his research assuming he would be writing a eulogy, but it didn’t turn out like that. The music might have been at a temporal, racial and cultural crossroads, but its heart and soul were very much alive. The author interviewed and photographed dozens of characters who were active on the Chicago blues scene, and the book is a celebration of their lives and work.
Interview by Michael Limnios All images Copyright © by Alan Harper
How has Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
I’m 61. When I was growing up, rock wasn’t counterculture, it was culture. So as a teenager in England in the 70s, when the blues was out of fashion and quite hard to find, it felt vaguely rebellious to like blues, and to criticise the Stones and Led Zep for ripping off the old African-American artists. Knowing where ‘Love in Vain’ came from, or ‘The Lemon Song’, made me feel superior!
How started the thought of Waiting For Buddy Guy? What was the hardest part of writing this book?
The hardest part was being 23. That’s how old I was when I came back from Chicago, with notes, interviews, records, photographs and piles of memorabilia. I sat down to write and realised I had no idea what I was doing. When I came back to it more than 30 years later, it was easy – I had been a journalist for decades. I knew what a story was, and I knew how to write. It was fun putting myself back into my 23-year-old head and writing the book I wanted to write all those years ago.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?
Journalists are spoilt, as you know. We get to meet interesting people all the time. But when I first went to Chicago I was only 20 and still a student. To be able to casually meet and talk to people like Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy was a huge experience for such a young person. When in 1979 I walked into B.L.U.E.S on North Halsted Street, my very first blues club – it had only been open a couple of months – the first person who spoke to me was Big Walter Horton.
"I was very young at the time. Probably the most useful thing I learned was that if I really wanted to do something, I could just do it. It was a great confidence-booster. Of course, the phrase ‘white privilege’ hadn’t been coined back then." (Photo: Buddy Guy, ChicagoFest 1979 / Copyright © Alan Harper)
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
There are plenty of talented musicians all over the world today who play blues with passion, sincerity and commitment. There are also plenty of talented musicians who think they’re playing blues, but who are actually playing rock. Unfortunately for the blues, the second group outnumbers the first group by about a thousand to one. The blues was born out of a particular time and place, so in the future anyone playing the music will be more of an archivist than an artist. But that’s OK. It would just be nice if they weren’t all guitar players. Pianos are pretty cool too.
What were the reasons that the UK was the centre of Blues researches? What are the differences between UK and US scene?
Until recently, the UK was a pretty open-minded place. Black American jazz bands played here in the 1920s and earlier. When the US Army started arriving in 1943, it was common to hear that ordinary English people preferred the polite Black soldiers to their noisy, boorish (and often racist) white compatriots. Bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White came over after the war and played on the radio and in big concert halls. Muddy Waters toured here in 1958. So there was a great interest in blues in the UK, and a thirst for knowledge about it which was hard to satisfy – it required a lot of research by writers such as Paul Oliver, and pioneering magazines like Blues Unlimited. It also seems that the essential racism of US culture largely kept Black artists and white audiences apart. So when white Americans did finally discover the blues, often thanks to British bands, the scholarly experts were also mostly British.
What would you say characterizes Chicago Blues Scene in comparison to other local circuits? What touched (emotionally) you?
The only blues scene I can claim any knowledge of was Chicago’s in 1979 and 1982. I can’t compare it with anywhere else. The best thing about it was its friendliness – everyone seemed to be having a good time.
"I’m 61. When I was growing up, rock wasn’t counterculture, it was culture. So as a teenager in England in the 70s, when the blues was out of fashion and quite hard to find, it felt vaguely rebellious to like blues, and to criticise the Stones and Led Zep for ripping off the old African-American artists. Knowing where ‘Love in Vain’ came from, or ‘The Lemon Song’, made me feel superior!" (Photo: Son Seals & Albert Collins at Stages, 3730 North Clark St, Chicago, August 1982 / Copyright © Alan Harper)
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your trips experiences to Chicago?
I was very young at the time. Probably the most useful thing I learned was that if I really wanted to do something, I could just do it. It was a great confidence-booster. Of course, the phrase ‘white privilege’ hadn’t been coined back then.
What is the impact of Blues on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?
When I was a teenager the blues helped me to understand the history of racial injustice in the Unites States. We don’t need it for that any more - with camera phones and Youtube, anyone who wants to can witness that injustice for themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to be interested.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
In 1982 I really enjoyed interviewing Theresa Needham about Buddy Guy’s earliest days as an unknown musician in Chicago. It would be fun to go back to Theresa’s Tavern for that night in 1957 when he persuaded her to let him play. After that, to Pepper’s Lounge, to catch Muddy Waters’ last set.
(Photo: Sunnyland Slim & Floyd Jones in B.L.U.E.S, Chicago, 1982 / Copyright © Alan Harper)
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