Category: Music and Dance

BluesSpeak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual

Edited by Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr. 2010. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 192 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03440-4 (hard cover), 978-0-252-07692-3 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Jeff Wanser, Hiram College

[Review length: 859 words • Review posted on September 22, 2010]

BluesSpeak is a compilation of selected interviews, essays, poetry, and other material reprinted and repackaged from the Original Chicago Blues Annual (hereafter, OCBA). OCBA was a labor of love for Lincoln “Chicago Beau” Beauchamp, Jr., published from 1989 to 1995. It was a different sort of blues publication from those currently on the market, part fan magazine, part literary review, and part directory. Beauchamp formulated it with a singular purpose—to present blues as both music and culture, as basic to the African Diaspora, and as such, vital to the continuance of African American culture. It contained no reviews, critiques, or news items, and featured few individuals outside of the African American community. Beauchamp’s vision was to create a vehicle for blues artists to speak for themselves about the music and other matters without the editorial intervention of either academics or whites. The contents reflected this vision throughout the run of the magazine, with Beauchamp as editor and publisher as well as primary contributor.

Despite Beauchamp’s emphasis on the blues as black music, the original publication was multicultural in flavor, with some articles in other languages than English, and the parent company partnered with individuals and companies in other countries (Italy, Iceland, Japan) to produce recordings and sponsor blues festivals. The OCBA was distributed widely in Europe, reflecting both the audience potential there and its creator’s own experiences of living in France for an extended period. The OCBA ceased publication in the mid-1990s due in large part to the changing music business and Chicago blues scene that made it no longer viable.

BluesSpeak is organized chronologically, with each of the main chapters consisting of a selection from each of the seven issues, along with an introduction by Beauchamp outlining the history of the magazine, his philosophy, and his life. The chapters are a treasure trove of material for blues fans and scholars. For most readers the interviews with such luminaries as Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, Lester Bowie, Junior Wells, Billy Boy Arnold, and others are the centerpiece. While each interview is different in emphasis, all speak to such topics as the artist’s beginnings and influences, life in the clubs and on the road, and experiences with other musicians. Beauchamp was the primary interviewer, and in one case, the interviewee, as he is also a blues musician. It is difficult to determine how heavily the interviews were edited, but in large part they seem faithful to what was likely taped. Speech patterns were carefully reproduced, with hesitations and other markers included. In addition, Beauchamp occasionally inserted himself rather deeply in the interviews with his own opinions and stories, suggesting more of a personal conversation. Questions sometimes seem leading, with Beauchamp knowing the likely answer. Some of these surround the racial politics of the blues and concern the treatment of musicians as well as the ability of white musicians to play the blues. Beauchamp is an outspoken proponent of an Afrocentric approach to the blues and just as vocal in his criticism of the appropriation of blues music by white musicians, the recording industry, and academia.

Essays take a lesser place here, but are nevertheless very informative. David Whiteis writes about Maxwell Street and its decline, Deitra Farr examines the experience of blues women, and James Otis Williams describes the importance of the jukebox and juke joints in his youth. Poetry by Hart Leroy Bibbs, Joseph Jarman, Eugene B. Redmond, and others speaks to the blues in a unique and poignant fashion.

In evaluating any “best of” collection, whether print or music, readers may find it important to know what was excluded. Unfortunately, the OCBA is owned by relatively few libraries, but an examination of the 1991 issue reveals some useful information. Two of the four interviews in this issue are reprinted in BluesSpeak, featuring Lester Bowie and Bruce Iglauer, owner of Alligator Records. Beauchamp conducted these, but the other two, with Little Milton and Robert Jr. Lockwood were not, and are omitted. Perhaps permission to reprint was part of the selection process as much as quality, as the Little Milton interview is excellent. An extensive photo essay of Blues Queens consumed fifteen pages, and was understandably left out. Two of the four essays and all but one of the eight poems in the issue were also excluded, as well as all of the ephemeral material, such as directories of festivals, booking agents, clubs, and musicians. In addition many pages were devoted to advertisements for clubs, equipment, recordings, radio stations, and local businesses. This is perhaps the most damaging omission for BluesSpeak—the extraction of the reprints from their original rich and fertile context. The ads provided both the economic engine for the publication as well as a sense of the vitality of the Chicago blues community in the early 1990s, its means of communication, and sense of aesthetics. The interviews are important, but the original issues in their entirety place the lives of the musicians in the life of the city.

Students, fans, and scholars will find much of interest and much to surprise in BluesSpeak. In the absence of access to the OCBA, BluesSpeak will substitute reasonably well for the real thing.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.