From the Streets of Chicago to the Lights of the Stage
From the Streets of Chicago
To the Lights of the Stage
By Chuck House - Sheboygan Press - April 14, 1981
"They call me Liberty Bill
Never worked and never will
I ain't no lazy man
Work just don't seem to fit my hand"
— Liberty Bill, by Jim Brewer
For about 30 years, day after good day, Jim Brewer would plug his guitar into some store along Maxwell Street and play the sidewalk blues, where traffic plays backup.
Black, blind, and eminently experienced at poverty, Brewer was born on a sharecropper's plantation in Brookhaven, Mississippi about 61 years ago. In his youth, despite his blindness, Brewer went on the road, playing and singing in churches, roadhouses, clubs, taverns and streets all over the South and Midwest. Eventually, he landed in East St. Louis and Chicago, where he made an esoteric reputation — but not much money — playing professionally on the streets.
On April 15, 1981, he landed in Sheboygan for a performance at John Michael Kohler Arts Center. The show was organized by local musician and guitar-store owner Jim Ohlschmidt, of Ohlschmidt's Guitar Emporium.
“A nice Jewish boy from Boston," who also performed at the concert, took up with Brewer several years prior and tried to help expand his regional reputation. The Samaritan’s name was Andrew Cohen, and his motive was pure. Cohen held Brewer in high esteem, personally and professionally. He decided to promote the music of Brewer, plainly, "because he's so good." Cohen further maintained:
"He's a flat-out excellent guitar player. He's a brilliant practitioner of what he does. When I saw him for the first time, I told myself that if I could get this guy working, I was going to do it. He's been at it [for] so long, his manner on stage is very charming. He's not out there selling the show. He sits up there and plays the music…It's not frenetic, at all. He doesn't try to cram a whole lot of notes in, and the craftsmanship is elegant."
Ernie Hawkins, 33, originally from Pittsburgh, played at the show as well, which inclusively, featured many styles of music, including the blues, ragtime, folk music, maybe jazz, maybe some cowboy music, maybe a little gospel and maybe some [other hybrid genres of the artist's invention.]
Hawkins and Cohen, both white, acknowledge an arm's length distance from pop music and rock 'n' roll — the money-making musical mainstream.
"Blues is sort of marginal within the industry," Hawkins said. "I don't anticipate ever being like Neil Diamond. Unless there was an act of God…Right now, I don't have many responsibilities. I'm pretty satisfied. It's a very nice thing to do." Hawkins, who has a doctorate degree from the University of Dallas and a little cap that says "Vail" on it, plays blues in a variety of regional styles, and acknowledges a musical debt to just about everyone, good and bad. [He had an album coming out in the fall.]
Cohen said he plays traditional folk music, ragtime and blues for approximately the same reason. "I don't know how to do anything else," he said. "And there's nothing else I really want to do. I've been called a ‘folk revivalist.’ I didn't invite the term. Folk music was really never dead. But if that's what they want to call me, I'll wear it like a badge." [Cohen had two albums to his credit, including Shuffle Rag]
Brewer went on tour in the early 1970s and recorded an album, Jim Brewer, in 1974, on the Philo label. But he doesn't tour so much anymore. He gets a small stipend from the government because he is blind, Cohen said, and doesn't want to jeopardize it by taking in money away from home. Brewer has played at the No Exit Cafe in Chicago, weekly, for about the last 16 years.
Re-published here is the section titled "Appreciation" from the album's back cover:
Jim's repertoire is broad and stylistically varied. He knows folks songs, blues, play-party songs, country & western songs, religious songs and even a few Jimmie Rodgers numbers. Jim represents a cross section of the musical culture of several generations from Mississippi to Chicago.
His talent has been smoothed and tempered by time and performance. He’s got a memory that songs and stories stick to and an imagination that generates more.
Jim knows his job—entertaining people. In the time he has been singing professionally, he has sung to more than a million people. He can build and work a crowd as well as any patent medicine dealer.
Jim has played music with lots of famous musicians, and many more who never got famous. Today, Jim is coming into his own. Here’s hoping that as be continues to grow, so will the respect that he has earned for himself and his music.
Andrew Morris Cohen - February, 1974