Local pub keeps the Blues alive

Local pub keeps the Blues alive
September 6, 2011
By Meredith Dobes

Blues musicians who have devoted countless years of their lives to their music and culture gather every Sunday at Chicago's Polk Street Pub to do what they love best: jam together.

"These are the last remaining true musicians from Maxwell Street who come to play at the pub," professor Steve Balkin said.

Balkin is a professor of economics with research interests in areas such as outdoor markets, urban development, micro-enterprise development and cultural preservation. He worked for the preservation of the old Maxwell Street neighborhood, which was mostly unsuccessful.

"It was one of the largest open air markets in the world. The neighborhood was an entry point for many new immigrants coming to Chicago, whether they were Jewish, German, Mexican or African American from the Deep South. There was cheap housing, whole sale produce and a great location near the Loop," Balkin said. "In 2000, it was demolished."

Blues musicians from the South played on the streets of the market because they did not need to be booked. What they created was urban electric blues, the root music of rock ‘n' roll.

Every other year, Balkin teaches Chinese students who are studying to earn their masters degrees in public administration about culture and public policy. He takes them to the old Maxwell Street neighborhood so they can see what was destroyed and then takes them to the new Maxwell Street to expose them to the blues played there.

"The Chinese students are surprised to see the similarities between Chinese public policy and Chicago public policy," Balkin said. "Both places like to destroy low-income neighborhoods. The neighborhood tried to relocate to Canal Street, but there wasn't as much room for these musicians to play. Instead of playing outside, they now play at the Polk Street Pub."

One of the musicians is Bobby Too Tough, who has been involved in the blues scene for over 60 years.

"I came [to Chicago] when I was 19 from New Orleans," Too Tough said. "I came from a musical family, but I wanted to be a prizefighter. I quit boxing at 21, and I met some guys from blues like B.B. King and Little Walter," Too Tough said. "It's nothing now like when I started. I used to play from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m."

Tony Brown is another blues musician who is very passionate about the blues scene and the music he plays.

"Real blues always tells a story," Brown said. "The blues is always saying something that somebody's been through. If it's not in your heart you really can't do it. Playing the blues and singing the blues, you've really got to feel it, and I feel the blues. I'm definitely a blues musician first and then a musician second."

The person responsible for organizing the blues jams at the Polk Street Pub for the past two years is Lori Lewis, who goes by the blues name of Low-reen. She has been involved in the blues scene for 30 years and started playing blues 10 years ago.

"It's something that just grabs you. It grabbed me, and it wouldn't let go," she said. "When I was adequate enough to play with other people, I started keeping a list of where these jams would be because they're so hard to keep track of. Everyone else wanted a copy, so I decided to put it on a website."

Low-reen's website of live blues lists caught Balkin's attention after he met her at protest jams hosted on the original Maxwell Street before its demolition. He encouraged her to organize jams.

"She was always helping out blues musicians. She had a fondness and genuine care and concern for the old blues guys," he said. "I thought if anybody's heart could be touched to try to keep this culture going that it would be her, and I picked the right person."

Low-reen added, "It's funny because I organize all of these musicians, and I'm the most inexperienced of them all. But I'm really lucky to play with these guys who come here."

Low-reen said she probably devotes 15 hours a week to jams. She is also a member of the Windy City Blues Society, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting blues music and culture.

Balkin believes the Polk Street Pub blues jams would be beneficial and versatile for all students' majors.

"If students are interesting in keeping this culture alive, the first thing they should do is learn about it. Go to the Polk Street Pub, and hear it in person. Talk to the people there, take pictures and video of it, write about it in history and public policy classes and if you play an instrument, you can learn to play blues from these musicians with years of experience," Balkin said. "It's like the Polk Street University of Blues."

Polk Street Pub blues jams happen every Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m. at 548 W. Polk St. Starting Sept. 11, Maxwell Street Market blues jams will begin and be held every Sunday before the Polk Street Pub blues jams from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at I. Sachs Sons Inc., 637 W. Roosevelt Road.

Low-reen's list of live blues can be found at lowreensliveblues.com. Balkin's list of Maxwell Street information and links can be found at sites.roosevelt.edu/sbalkin/maxwell-street-webpage. Information on the Windy City Blues Society can be found at windycityblues.org.
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