The racial disparities in the Chicago blues scene

An article in a series about the blues in Chicago explores how the white, downtown clubs are thriving while the older, black clubs on the south and west sides are struggling:

Two clubs, two worlds, one music: the blues. That’s how it goes in Chicago, a blues nexus crisply divided into separate, unequal halves. A sharp racial divide cuts through the blues landscape in Chicago, just as it does through so many other facets of life here, diminishing the music on either side of it.

The official Chicago blues scene — a magnet for tourists from around the globe — prospers downtown and on the North Side, catering to a predominantly white audience in a homogenized, unabashedly commercial setting. The unofficial scene — drawing mostly locals and a few foreign cognoscenti — barely flickers on the South and West sides, attracting a mostly black, older crowd to more homespun, decidedly less profitable locales.

Not all the grass-roots places are dying as quickly as the music room at the Water Hole. Some, such as Lee’s Unleaded Blues, on the South Side, attract a small but steady crowd on the three nights it’s open each week.

But how long can this go on? How long can a music that long flourished on the South and West sides — where the blues originators lived their lives and performed their songs — stay viable when most of the neighborhood clubs have expired? How long can a black musical art form remain dynamic when presented to a largely white audience in settings designed to replicate and merchandise the real thing?

Lots of interesting history. Additionally, the conversations about authenticity and tourism are intriguing: why doesn’t Chicago promote its music and culture more and would a major push in this direction water down the product?

It would probably be very interesting to talk to Chicago and suburban residents about blues music. How many of them know its an available option and if they do know this, how many would choose it over other entertainment activities? How many students in the region know that the blues has such a rich history in Chicago? How many colleges teach about American music (blues and jazz and their contributions to the development of rock ‘n’ roll) as opposed to classical music? How much does like for the blues cut across racial lines? Is the blues most acceptable to educated whites (in more sociological terms, cultural omnivores)?