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Anyone who follows Chicago blues knows the sound is fading. Despite the parade of interested tourists, storied clubs such as Theresa’s Lounge, 708 Club, Blues Etc., and Turner’s Blues Lounge continue to shutter their doors. The latest blow is the forced relocation of Legends, Buddy Guy’s music mecca, which will be converted into a Columbia College student center (Guy says he plans to reopen elsewhere in the city, but doesn’t yet know where or when). Chicago radio stations have ignored the music for years, and despite the city’s embrace of large-scale dance, theatre, and music events at Millennium Park, there’s little recognition of the early blues pioneers who helped put Chicago on the cultural world map. The city’s free blues fest is underfunded, lacks marquee stars, and is routinely underpromoted; this year, the more appealing option was to wait another weekend and drive 40 miles out to Aurora, where the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Cray headlined a fest by the Fox.
The final chord, however, has not sounded. The city tourism office recently débuted a 50-minute audio tour, narrated by Guy, that details Chicago blues history; download the tour on the city’s Web site (downloadchicagotours.com) and listen to it on an iPod or MP3 player. On July 28th, Eric Clapton will stage his annual Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago for the first time. Guy will be there, and he will be joined by such blues-influenced heavyweights as John Mayer, Steve Winwood, and Sheryl Crow. For his part, Guy says he plans to capitalize on the already sold-out event to raise awareness about an issue that’s hounded him for years: “We need a blues museum in Chicago. What are we waiting for?”
Still, when it comes to promoting, preserving, and even capitalizing on its musical heritage, Chicago falters compared with smaller rivals like Austin, Memphis, and even post-Katrina New Orleans. The broadcasting legend Jack Brickhouse is deservedly memorialized in bronze on Michigan Avenue. But Muddy Waters? Still invisible.
So, what are we waiting for? Maybe a big idea. Here are six ways Chicago can make the blues sing again.
Illustration: Margaret Lee; Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy