Chicago Music, Then And Now, Now And Then

Chicago Music, Then And Now, Now And Then

Let me tell you a story while the crowd gathers…it was March 4th, 2004, that himself passed away quietly after battling cancer and alzheimers; but the years leading up to that point are what truly matter in the great histories of the world. The life of Bob Circle would require volumes to imply and whole forests to give detail. His life was that of the great generation, and the consummate raconteur. His life was that of many other men of his time; but remained uniquely and deeply tied to his Appalachian heritage and the stories passed along by the words of his elders and the youngens who followed, each re-telling gaining a bit more color and length than the previous. In time, this particular aged son of a great man may put it upon himself, or be pushed by some sadistic friend or family member, to get it all down on the page. Bob Circle may be resting in peace, but he will also live for many more to hear from…there is his true peace and profound legacy.

What the hell does this have to do with music? Pops loved it. He was raised on the bluegrass ramblings of Appalachia and the old Welsh and Irish classics. When he was ten and came to Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair, he was exposed to the lively age of jazz. During World War Two, he traveled the world and was surrounded through six theaters of war, by the music of his brothers in arms and the various cultures within which they found themselves. He loved Greek music, for instance, after a stint among the islands.




This is in essence, the experience of 7 billion people. The love of music pervades the entire world. The need for music runs deep. Each musician has a vast audience, more vast than ever before. Each also has more to tap into for influences from which to sponge new ideas. How was that audience tapped into two hundred years ago? One hundred years ago? Twenty-five years ago? What do we suppose has changed?

Here’s a little blog I wrote a couple years ago:

I’ll bring you down easy like. So, you want to be an artist? You want to change the world. You have brilliant new ideas meant to inspire. I tell you to go for it. I tell you to go for it, while knowing the intense let downs you’ll run into; the hell bent-on-making money venue assholes (I meant owners, though not all of them qualify for the expletive) you’ll have to deal with; the pathological pathos that runs rampant thru our American culture; the people throughout the world that will listen with great appreciation to your work online (for free) and never buy a single download; the many mindless jobs you’ll have to work to pay a pittance for rent in a shit neighborhood; the complete lack of respect and/or pitiful look you’ll receive when you tell someone you’re in the arts. Then, when you’ve latched on to this and are ready to throw in the towel and exit the ring, I’ll tell you this: They need you. You chose it. Now give it your all or die with tremendous regret. See you in the ring.

Dark or true? I may have been a bit jaded when I wrote that, but not by the music “industry” as much by the constant complaining of so many of my compatriots about the “state of things” in our little worlds. And that’s just what they are…little worlds. When we live in this vast world connected so closely by modern technologies, social networking, websites promoting our music with long lists of others, it’s certainly easy to feel small. But look at it in another way. Two hundred years ago, the only way our work was heard was by playing it live in front of other physically present human beings. Then we’d move on to another village or city or encampment and share again.
By a hundred years ago, recording came forth with the wax cylinder followed by the phonograph, neither of which most people could afford, but it did allow for preserving any musical performance in the moment. Add radio and film, and now we have most of the available forms of musical preservation, of germination for the spread of music.




By the time I was out in public performing on a regular basis and looking to music as a career, one was able to make home recordings with an affordable 4-track portable studio that set your music onto cassette in an analog format. If you were industrious, you also had a cassette duplicator like the one I picked up from a friend with a studio. Then you could go to this new place called Kinko’s and print out little inserts and you had your own music release. You could sell it to people on the street and at shows, or as so many did with these and then CDs, give them away. I very much discourage this. Do not devalue your work. Even if you have a friend who’s a mechanic, you at least give him a six-pack for changing the oil on your car. Ask for something reasonable for your music. If people really want it, they’ll happily share the wealth as you have shared it by your creation.

Music does not change. At its core, it remains a means to tell stories of love and frustration, of victory and defeat, of life’s journey. It only evolves, growing new branches of expression, new means of creation and preservation. It survives. It is a living, breathing thing and this is why we all gravitate to it. It is our most consistent symbiosis. What changes is the nature of the business surrounding it. But, one has to separate the business aspect from the creative. Otherwise, you begin to hate the thing you loved, as if it’s the fault of music that we’ve fallen prey to money. Oh, and it’s not.

I’ve made my living in music for decades. Sometimes it’s been a very comfortable one; sometimes a very sparse one. Two things got in the way of my love for it: thinking my success as an artist was based on financial gain and thinking that my so-called rock star image required I act a certain way. Both were nearly my un-doing. Coming back to the core of the creative process and playing music for pure enjoyment (for myself and others) has made it the divine selfish behavior it is meant to be. I benefit by making music, other people enjoy it and I’m therefore giving to them, they give back their appreciation, I benefit, they benefit…ad infitum.

When I look back over the fifty years I’ve been around, I don’t lament the change in musical ideas. I celebrate it. I’m glad that things aren’t the same. How boring would that be? Being a genetic gypsy, as well as one at heart, I truly enjoy being on the road. Why? It’s always new. Even if I’ve been there before, it’s much like playing the same song over and over again through the years. Each time, it’s still recreated in a fresh performance to a different line-up of audience members through a different life moment. The experience is never quite the same. What a relief.

So, as you sit there and piss and moan about the changes in the world, or act as if those old timers never had it as good you, remember one thing; the music doesn’t change, we do. Without our individual growth, without cultural evolution, we don’t gain new stories, new mores to work through. Without musical expression, we talk about it and our voices become flat and monotonous. It’s the rhythms and the melodies that make it so three-dimensional. Now, we can preserve it through the ancient oral tradition, through the recording process; we can let it evolve and take new shape through different interpretations; we can let it live within us all and connect us all. Yeah, I know…”hippy.” Too bad it’s true.

How does a city like Chicago fit into this little story? It has not changed since I was a child enjoying my new transistor radio, listening to AM radio and dancing down LaSalle St. to see my Pops at The Board Of Trade Building. It still permeates every move through this great city. You still hear it everywhere, in all its forms, more than any city I’ve ever visited. And I’ve been to all the big ones in this country and several outside it. We have the most vibrant, living and evolving music scene around. Be part of it. The thread may change colors, but it remains.




Above image courtesy of porbital at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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