Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

By Alan Harper. 2016. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-04008-5 (hard cover), 978-0-252-08157-6 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Barry Lee Pearson, University of Maryland

[Review length: 758 words • Review posted on November 15, 2016]

Looking back some thirty years, British writer Alan Harper describes three summer trips to Chicago, in 1979, 1982, and 1985, in a casual mix of travel writing, blues criticism, informal ethnography, and a coming-of-age blues adventure story. He makes no claims to academic credentials or scholarly intent; indeed, he seems to scorn such posturing. He does, however, carry a tape recorder and camera with which he documents various blues community members and events, and at evening’s end writes up his field notes, the bars he visited, and who he saw. His central research question, or at least the topic his interviews most often focus on, is why the blues support system in Chicago has shifted from black to majority white.

Sandwiched between a prologue, “Blues Fell This Morning,” and an epilogue, “Fade to Black,” are eight chapters: 1) “Sunnyland Slim’s Birthday Party”; 2) “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites”; 3) “At the Court of King Luther”; 4) “Peeling Potatoes with Carey Bell”; 5) “Turning the Tables at WXOL”; 6) “Fried Mississippi Catfish Blues”; 7) “Comparing Hangovers at Alligator”; and 8) “Louis Myers’ White Eldorado.” He also includes an appendix detailing his day-to-day, or rather night-to-night, activities; a seemingly random list of biographical information on blues artists, scholars, and others he chooses to include; a general index; and forty-five photographs. As indicated by the chapter heading, chapter 2 wrestles with the question of whether blues is primarily a cultural phenomenon or black tradition, or whether it is simply a musical idiom, equally available to all comers regardless of culture or background, a theme which resurfaces throughout the book.

Harper never quite decides which side of the fence to fall on, now defending blues as a black tradition, extolling the virtues of the black artists; later defending the skills of the white sidemen and guitar slingers working the idiom. At book’s end, however, once back in Britain and in the present day, he implies that artistic quality trumps all other concerns, which would lead one to ask just whose artistic system the critic is using. Most of the clubs he visits are white-owned and cater to a majority white clientele or, if black-owned, like Theresa’s or Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge, are in the process of becoming tourist destinations. During the day he stops in at various musicians’ houses, visits a radio station, a record store, a recording company, and a fish market all connected to the Chicago blues business.

While the first part of the title is apt, we don’t get to meet Buddy Guy until the last chapter; although he is set up as the centerpiece of the author’s quest, the second part of the title is misleading. Besides the almost mandatory use of the term “crossroads,” which is to blues writing what “I woke up this morning” is to blues songs, Harper uses it to mark the shift between blues as a black tradition, with black artists playing to black audiences, to one in which younger black artists often with mixed bands play to and cater to the values of a younger white audience. I would argue that such a shift happened a good ten years earlier.

Overall he tells a good story and is a very fine writer, and folklorists and casual readers alike will be entertained by his adventures. He takes the reader on an enjoyable ride, painting an accessible picture of Chicago in the 80’s, a time capsule as seen from an outsider’s perspective. But what he doesn’t paint so clearly is his own participation and perspective. Disdainful of the blues tourists he encounters, he seems to place himself outside of that category. In a sense he sets up a hierarchy with black blues artists, the elders at the top, loud inebriated white fans naively cheering cluttered showy guitar breaks at the bottom, and himself poised in between. While he learns that black and white audiences bring different sets of aesthetic preferences to any given blues performance, the former more concerned with nuances of vocal performance, intensity, sincerity, or feeling, the latter after hot licks, Harper seems torn between the two, once again in the middle.

It’s also telling that his primary hero is Buddy Guy, a mediator who has all the credentials of the old-school Chicago blues but gracefully transitioned to the blues rock world of Harper’s homeboy hero Eric Clapton. Ironically, Guy also had his own blues clubs, the Checkerboard Lounge in Harper’s day and later, closer to Downtown, Buddy Guy’s Lounge, the number one blues tourist mecca in the city.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.