Plug Into the City’s Musical Roots with ‘Amplified: Chicago Blues’

Amplified Chicago Blues Koko Taylor

When it comes to homegrown enjoyment, forget apple pie (it’s Dutch or English anyway). Blues music is about as American as you can get. And the Chicago History Museum is celebrating that fact with its current exhibition Amplified: Chicago Blues.

The show honors the stories, sights and sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Little Brother Montgomery, Magic Sam, Big Joe Williams, Willie Dixon—and “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor.

“The legendary blues singer Koko Taylor became one of the few women to achieve commercial success in a male-dominated field,” says Senior Curator Libby Mahoney. “She broke down barriers and enjoyed a long and fruitful career until her death in Chicago in 2009.”

Born in Memphis in 1928, Taylor moved to the Windy City around 1952 as part of the Great Migration, a wave of African-American musicians and singers moving from the rural south to the urban north.

“Blues music helped southern black migrants forge connections and transform an unfamiliar, often inhospitable city into a new home,” explains Joy Bivins, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. “The Chicago blues sound, rooted in the past, reflected the realities of a new life that was taking shape in the Midwest metropolis.”

This period was documented by local record distributor and photographer Raeburn Flerlage, whose work is included in the exhibition. “Flerlage captured a critical moment in the development of Chicago blues,” continues Bivins. “His photographs bring to life the artists who developed and refined the sound as they shared the music in their homes and throughout the city.”

In addition to Flerlage’s imagery, the exhibit provides text, audio, and in-depth explorations of the music itself via iPod touches. “The exhibition also features a filmed interview with Mary Lane, a Chicago blues artist who sang with Howlin’ Wolf,” adds Mahoney. “The clip features a young Chicago rap and hip hop artist, Isaiah Oby, interviewing Ms. Lane about her life and career.”

There’s also a blues club area featuring a biographical panel with a photograph of Taylor taken with Lightin’ Hopkins in 1965. “At the time,” notes Mahoney, “she was a rising star of the Chicago blues scene with her hit recording ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ (1961).”

In fact, visitors can try their hand (or rather, vocal chords) at “Wang Dang Doodle” since it’s part of a karaoke activity within the exhibition. Other immersive stations encourage attendees to write and sing their own blues song, design their own album cover and learn basic blues chords on a digital guitar

“Amplified: Chicago Blues” is on view at the Chicago History Museum through Aug. 10, 2019. Public programs, including a Blues Community Concert Series, are scheduled throughout the run. A four-hour Blues Bus Tour is slated for Saturday, July 14. Those holding tickets ($45-$55) can explore Chicago’s South Side and Bronzeville area with visits to Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues Club and Chess Records. For details, visit chicagohistory.org/blues.

Photo credit: Queen of the blues Koko Taylor (in tiara) with Lightnin’ Hopkins and others at Chicago’s Western Hall in 1965. Chicago History Museum.

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Ms. Arvia is a freelance writer, former filmmaker, artist and Janet-of-all-trades who is pleased to contribute to our magazine since she’s always been Rebellious.