Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Chris Houkal brings us the documentary Maxwell Street Blues from filmmakers Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky. Shot in 1979, as the area was transitioning from a century old massive outdoor marketplace to an upscale shopping district and university campus, the filmmakers were able to document the last of a dying breed of black blues musicians still playing for pennies among the decay.
Did Chicago ever look like this? Even the Near West Side, always a tad seedy and gritty, today barely resembles the Chicago of Maxwell Street Blues. Filmed in the summer of 1979, with some older footage scattered throughout, this documentary represents an altogether different time – if not – world. Much of the street looks as if it had never been repaired following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. But this can’t be: though it started very close to Maxwell Street, the fire barely touched the area. Musicians play out of beat up old vans in front of mounds of rubble, singers dance amidst a landscape of vacant lots, and garbage is strewn everywhere. Where did this all go? Where did this all go?
Had you found yourself on Maxwell Street in the early part of the twentieth century, you would have marveled at the sheer breadth of items being sold by vendors. Resembling an enormous outdoor mall, Maxwell Street was in truth a giant black market where nearly anything and everything could be bought or sold. In a neighborhood that had long been home to recent immigrants, Maxwell Street was turned into a weekend market by Jewish immigrants, benefiting from Christian owned shops closing on Sundays.
Accustomed to the blandness of shopping malls today, you would never have expected Maxwell Street to give rise to art – but it did. As a son of some of the original Jewish immigrants says in Maxwell Street, they were only there to make money but at some point allowed black musicians to play outside their storefronts in the hopes that this would draw in customers. An inspired byproduct of this symbiotic relationship was the invention of an entirely new form of music as southern blacks accompanied their traditional gospel and blues sounds with gritty electric guitars: Chicago’s electric blues. Bo Diddley played here, as did Junior Wells, and, oh yeah, a guy named Muddy Waters.
The filmmakers responsible for Maxwell Street Blues, Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky, arrived in the nick of time: what an inferno couldn’t accomplish, politicians did. Since the mid-sixties the area had been fighting a losing battle with Mayor Daley and his plan to essentially evict the locals from their homes to make room for a new UIC campus. Somehow the market lingered on until 2000, though by then little remained. In 1979, when Maxwell Street was filmed, there was still a decent number of old shops and street vendors. Better yet, there were still quite a few musicians. During the course of the film we meet a number of them: “Playboy” Venson, Floyd Jones (who ironically states that nowadays only universities accept blues), and two blind musician friends: Arvella Gray and Jim Brewer. Gray, in particular, gets a lot of screen time. Though blind he amazingly – almost unbelievably – devotes his spare time to a hobby he picked up: filming people on Maxwell Street! Watching him play his home movies while offering commentary makes for a delightfully mind-boggling experience.
Like the films of Les Blank, Linda Williams’ and Raul Zaritsky’s Maxwell Street Blues relies heavily on unobtrusive on-location shots: the filmmakers themselves remain silent throughout. There are only a couple of talking head-type interviews: one with a man whose father opened a store on Maxwell Street in the early twentieth century and another with a record store employee who waxes poetic about Chicago’s role in blues history. But even these are more like interviews with locals than expert analyses. Still, this documentary is at its best when it simply allows the music to speak for itself. Along with the aforementioned musicians, all of whom we see making some terrific music, the charismatic gospel singer Carrie Robinson, a regular since the sixties, does her thing. She struts and dances and every once in awhile appears to slip into a kind of trance as she sings praise to god. Moments like these are thrilling, especially the black and white footage (culled from an earlier documentary on the same subject). These artists and performers may lack a sense of power, but their music liberates them. And me.
Watching old films like Maxwell Street Blues is always a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand I get a real joy from seeing this part of my hometown, something I personally missed out on, but nevertheless feel in my bones. I get goose bumps seeing these ghosts of Chicago lighting up the ruins of an even older Chicago with their haunting tunes. On the other hand I’m reminded of my own time, when something like Maxwell Street – a true unregulated free market – would be shut down immediately. Still, my guess is the spirit of Maxwell Street lingers somewhere in Chicago and within people like me who loathe uniformity. It’s an integral part of Chicago history the way strip malls and big box stores never can be. No, urban renewal isn’t always a good thing.