An Open Letter From a Blues Fan [Bob Koester]
By Robb Baker - Jan 19, 1969
Our recent series on the rock-blues scene brought a most welcome letter, part plea, part protest, from a Chicagoan with a knowledge of this city’s blues so extensive that we wish ours was one-tenth as great.
Bob Koester runs one of the town's few record stores with real character, The Jazz Record Mart at 7 West Grand Ave, and has his own recording company for local blues artists, Delmark Records, at the same address.
He writes about blues with the same nonstop excitement with which he speaks of them. Here, unedited except for one word not for family newspaper consumption, is what he said:
The blues scene in Chicago is as it has always been, enormous--far more important (I am truly sorry to say) than the jazz scene here, and certainly relevant to the rock scene and to the readers of your column. It is silly that southern city like New Orleans finally recognizes its culture !To the extent of city-wide support of a jazz club, a jazz museum and annual jazz festivals, while Daleytown refuses to pay the slightest homage to the roles of black bluesmen in the current rock-pop-blues revolution.
Face it rock is all-too-often just whitey's imitation of blues Chicago style. (Maybe I should make that plural—there is quite a range of styles in the Chicago school). The Grateful Dead’s version of GOOD MORNING LITTLE SCHOOLGIRL is a blatant imitation of Jr. Wells' recording of several years earlier (Closer than Jr. would be if he were to re-record it [and not bad for the in all likelihood inebriated Pigpen]); another two tracks from the same album ("Hoodoo Man Blues," Delmark DS-9612, which has never seen so much as one slug of type in the Chicago press) were lifted bodily and spliced together for THE DIRTY BLUES BAND'S first album track, "Hound Dog."
As no rock band (To my knowledge—I don't follow the imitation-blues scene that much) has imitated our recent MAGIC SAM release, I will stop short of giving Leonard Chess’ product free advertising, though I could go on.
It (blues) would seem to be an important part of the rock scene if so much…imitation can be passed off as serious art worthy or "criticism"—so why not lift the bushel and see the light. Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and a very few other young Chicagoans did put in their sit-in time on the band stand of the generous black artists, picked up a few licks, organized bands that come fairly close to the original thing and were accepted by the young whiteys (who were culturally deprived by racism and segregation and thus unable to hear the originals); a few of the kids even became members of blues bands (Otis Rush has had a white guitarist—2 different guys—for 3 years now; Memphis Charlie Musselwhite played regularly with Johnny Young before he got tired of being hassled by fuzz and split for S.F. where he is a minor folk hero.)—but the sanctioning of this music by a whole generation of whiteys in imitation (occasionally the sincerest form of flattery but more often than not just a good way to make a buck, pick up some ego, make an identity with the folk "Negro" that helps one’s self-respect perhaps, etc. etc. etc.) has raised the originators from obscurity to legend to an occasional factor in name-dropping on litter notes to help sell the pale imitations.
For God's sake, for art's sake, for journalism's sake, Robb, you know where it's really happening! Tell the people. I appreciate the many kind references to my shop, myself and my label. But blues in Chicago depend on the Big Walters and the Magic Sams and the Carey Bells, not on Mike Bloomfield, who wonderful guy that he is, is in a blind alley musically. No black man is going to change his idea of guitar-playing because of a Mike Bloomfield record, and most of the young Whiteys are too interested in the buck to go thru the changes Mike, Paul, and damnfew others did to pick up what must be learned.
If black artists must wait as long as Bird (Charley Parker), (Fletcher) Henderson, Louis (Armstrong)—or Fats Waller) — to achieve recognition (or maybe some bread), they must die first in too pathetically many cases. Here at the Jazz Record Mart we sell the hell out of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James (all discovered by whitey immediately after their death as if the press releases had been prepared in advance).
The whiteys [and, culturally, I must include Taj Mahal and quite a few others—haven’t decided about Hendrix because he bores me] make the loot and the black man creates the music.
That's barely a fourth of Koester's letter. Most of it takes issue with our article entitled "Urban Blues: No Longer Easy to Find in Chicago" ("if the blues are hard to find in Chicago it is only because someone thinks of Chicago as meaning ‘white Chicago ghettoes’ and not of Chicago as a very large city with many different ghettoes for many different people of many different cultures"), and for proof gives an extensive list of clubs on the south and west sides, followed by three lists of local bluesmen, headed "Usually on the Road," "Legendary Outside Chicago but Generally Staying at Home," and "Up and Coming."
Last, Koester issued an invitation to visit those clubs with him some Saturday night. It looks like it will take a lot more Saturdays than one. Happily.