Experience Chicago Like a Local

May 13, 2019

I worked pretty damn hard to get to Chicago for the first time. I was cycling across the country, from west to east, with a group raising funds for global hunger relief, and we didn’t have a day off between Salt Lake City and the Windy City. With each pedal push across Nebraska, Iowa and finally Illinois, Chicago—with its famed barbecue joints, soul-satisfying blues music and the jewel that is Wrigley Field—got a little closer.

The “City of Big Shoulders” as poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago, did not disappoint. As luck would have it, my hometown San Francisco Giants were in town to play the Cubs at Wrigley on July 17, 1986, and when a Cubs official heard we were riding across the country, (I think our police-escorted entrance into town made the local news), he promptly offered us free tickets above third base.

Walking to Wrigley for the first time made me feel like a kid with off-the-charts anticipation. There it all was: the big red sign out front reading “HOME OF CHICAGO CUBS,” the ivy-covered outfield walls, the classic green scoreboard with an analog clock on top and the buildings beyond the bleachers where people picnicking on rooftops watched the games for free.

“What makes Wrigley Field unique to me is the location. It’s a neighborhood ballpark that suddenly appears amid the brownstones,” says Carrie Muskat, author of Banks to Sandberg to Grace: Five Decades of Love and Frustration with the Chicago Cubs. “If you go to a game and have a sense of baseball history, Wrigley is even more special,” adds Muskat, who covers the Cubs for MLB.com. “Babe Ruth played there; Ernie Banks wanted to live there. And someday, the Cubs might win a World Series there.”

Wrigley Field has been showing its age, but that’s part of its charm, and a new Jumbotron installed this year adds 21st-century technology to the creaky yard. Mark Gonzales, who covers the Cubs for the Chicago Tribune notes that baseball is “deep-rooted” in Chicago and that loyalty is passed down through the generations. “You can always sell hope, and hope remains strong with the Cubs.”

That hope is captured in Norman Rockwell’s 1948 painting The Dugout. It focuses on a slump-shouldered bat boy with dejected Cubs players sitting in the dugout behind him. Above are several jeering fans, but there’s one smiling kid, thrilled just to be at the game. That’s the symbol of the true Cubs fan.

My 1986 visit to Wrigley was a day game, a couple of years before the ballpark installed lights. I soaked up sun and suds, cheering as my favorite pitcher, Vida Blue, hit a home run and pitched the Giants to victory. Welcome to Chicago.

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A human-scale park (not a stadium) that holds about 40,000 people, Wrigley opened in 1914, and, astonishingly, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in the century they’ve played there. Their last champion- ship came in 1908. The closest they’ve come in recent years was in 2003 when they were five outs away from reaching the World Series. A fan interfered with a foul ball that may have been caught; then the floodgates opened. The Cubs lost that game and the next, ending their season.

Across town two years later, however, the Chicago White Sox won the World Series, and South Side fans, including an Illinois senator who’d be elected president in 2008, rejoiced.

Chicago knows how to celebrate. “This is possibly the last city in the world where you can see blues seven nights a week,” says Marc Lipkin, a spokesman for Alligator Records, a Chicago blues label. He ticks off the city’s famed blues clubs: Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, Rosa’s Lounge and Buddy Guy’s Legends, which opened in 1989. Guy typically plays a series of dates at his club in January. At other times of the year, if he’s not touring, Guy often joins whoever is on his stage for an impromptu jam. “To see Buddy at his own club is spectacular,” Lipkin says.

People in this traditionally blue-collar city have worked hard and danced into the wee hours at clubs featuring some of the best blues music in the country. It’s music that comes from the Deep South, songs meant to ease hardship and bring joy. “When people from the South got to Chicago, they electrified,” says Ed Williams, a Chicago native and bluesman known as Lil’ Ed. “Electrified blues gave people a lot of feeling—that’s what made Chicago blues so special. And it was up-tempo too. The south blues was slow. In Chicago we started to put a little buff on it.”

Williams, the nephew of the late blues legend J.B. Hutto and front man for Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, laughs easily and smiles often. “Musicians like to see people have fun, so blues is not all about just cryin’ and woo-woo-in’ and talkin’ about my baby’s gone, but a lot of blues is about gettin’ up and shakin’ your tailfeather,” he says. “Most people that’s got the blues, they’re looking for a way out. If you give them that way out through music, that helps them along because people don’t want to be miserable all the time, they want to be happy.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, when the acoustic Delta blues of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon moved north to Chicago, the musicians plugged in “to compete with the volume level of the city,” says Alligator Records’ founder Bruce Iglauer. “You couldn’t play an acoustic guitar under the L tracks and expect to be heard.”

Iglauer calls Chicago blues the “toughest, hardest-edged, most visceral style of electric blues, because it grew out of the acoustic Delta blues sound which was the hardest, most rhythmic, most intense of the blues styles around the country. So Chicago, being a rough, tough city, nurtured a rough, tough blues sound.”

Billy Branch, a blues harmonica player who played with Willie Dixon in the late 1970s and early ’80s, believes most people don’t understand how much Chicago blues influenced rock music since its beginnings. He calls Dixon “one of the most influential musical composers of modern times,” but says that he’s not as well known as he should be. “You look at all these Led Zeppelin records and Rolling Stones songs, most of their early music was covers, including a few Willie Dixon songs. That’s not common knowledge to the general public.”

Branch hopes to spread awareness about Dixon’s contributions at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, a free event held in Grant Park. “We are bringing back many of the musical players that are still around that played with Willie,” Branch says, but “that’s not a lot.”

Dixon and fellow blues legend Muddy Waters were born in 1915. The City of Chicago is honoring the centennial of their births at this year’s blues festival, says city spokeswoman Mary May. Some sources say Muddy Waters, whose real name is McKinley Morganfield, was born in 1913, but no definitive records exist. “Muddy said he was born in 1915 and that’s the date on his tombstone,” which is good enough for the city, May says.

Two of Muddy’s sons will be part of the tribute, she says, and Buddy Guy will headline the festival. The setting is ideal, she adds, with views of Chicago’s skyline and Lake Michigan. And because it’s free, some people who can’t go to blues clubs can enjoy the music.

Branch notes that Muddy Waters defined the Chicago blues sound in the mid-20th century, and that it’s this sound that so many rock bands sought to emulate. He recalls that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named their band after Muddy’s song “Rollin’ Stone” and in 1981 came to Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge to pay homage to him and serve as his backing band.

Gospel and soul singer Otis Clay, who like so many others journeyed to Chicago from the South as a teenager, says blues isn’t the only roots music in Chicago. “When they talk of Chicago as being the blues capital of the world, it’s hard to say that without thinking of it as the gospel capital.” Clay says blues has borrowed heavily from gospel, the music of Southern church- es. “You’ve got to follow that path from the South,” Clay says. “When they brought the blues in here, they brought the gospel as well.”

The transcendent gospel singer Mahalia Jackson came to fame in Chicago, Clay recalls. Chicago disc jockey and oral historian Studs Terkel was credited with “discovering” Mahalia because he played her records on his radio show, but he dismissed that, noting that she was filling black churches and concert halls in the city before most white people had heard of her.

Ultimately, Clay says, good music is good music, whether it’s soul, gospel or blues. “So when people start defining this music, it’s not an easy thing to do, I wouldn’t even try to do it. You know, if you like it, good.” Alligator’s Lipkin says that even people who think they don’t like the blues change their minds when they come to Chicago. “When somebody says, ‘I don’t like blues’ and you put them in front of a live blues band, they will leave that club a blues fan. It almost never fails.”

The blues scene in Chicago has certainly changed since the days when Muddy and Dixon played to predominantly black audiences, and Bud- dy Guy and Junior Wells jammed at the now-defunct Theresa’s. “I do feel something has been lost,” Iglauer says. “When I used to go to blues clubs on the South Side or the Westside, the people in the audience and the people on the stage were basically the same people. They all shared a culture. Most had grown up in the South; they were working-class people, and they were sharing a style of music they have been listening to their whole lives. They had an ownership of the music. Even if they didn’t play it, it was their music.”

In sharp contrast to big arena shows, at blues halls you can get close to the performers. At B.L.U.E.S., “you can sit three feet from the stage,” Iglauer says. “At Kingston Mines you can sit 12 feet from the stage. At Legends, if you get a good table you can put your feet up on the stage. It’s music that is right there. The music is not showbiz; Chicago blues is the opposite of slick.”

Which is a fitting way to describe the barbecue and soul food that gives Chicago’s cuisine its distinctive flavor. This is down-home food, meant to satisfy hard-working people without breaking the bank.

Soul food and barbecue have been “hugely important in keeping Southern traditions alive,” says Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. “What we understand as soul food is really the immigrant cuisine of the African-Americans who left the South. They did what any other immigrant group does: You land in a new place, and you try to re-create home.”

Otis Clay offers this advice for finding good soul food: “If it’s a soul food restaurant, it’s gotta have a woman’s first name.” The soul singer says he used to eat at Edna’s or Alice’s several times a week. Al- though their namesakes have passed on, Clay says, “sometimes I still go back; they left good recipes. They’re still going well.”

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Miller agrees. “After eating my way through the country, I think Chicago has the best soul food scene outside of the South. What’s special about Chicago is that it’s a close approximation of what people were eating in the South.”

He also appreciates the barbecue options and says the city’s iconic dish is rib tips. Decades ago rib tips, which can be tough and chewy, were so unpopular that meatpackers would trash them or sell them for pennies per pound, so they became a staple for those with limited means. Today they’re a delicacy.

At Lem’s Bar-B-Q on the city’s South Side, manager Lynn Walker can spare only a minute to talk—she’s busy making sure the boisterous crowd that’s already arrived at the restaurant at 5 p.m. is getting fed.

What makes Lem’s ribs and tips so special? “It’s the sauce,” Walker says, “and the seasoning. They’re smoked, and you can feed your family with them.” Then Walker turns away to serve the next customer in the squat brick building with the big neon sign. Ribs and tips, because they’re not naturally tender, need to cook for a long time. But what once seemed like a curse turns out to be a blessing, as the slow cook- ing infuses the meat with smoky flavors.

Barbecue has come a long way from its roots as affordable meat. Carson’s, founded in 1977, elevated barbecue to fine dining “when no one else was doing that,” says Carson’s owner and operator Dean Carson. He says Chicago is a “great food town” especially for meat. “Everything went into Chicago alive, and everything left Chicago butchered to parts everywhere and unknown,” he says, recalling the town’s role in meat processing. “Chicago is a meaty town in all ways.”

And like all the best barbecue purveyors, Carson’s has a credo: “We stand firm in this: We do not boil or steam our ribs in any way; we do not bake them; we do not marinate them. We do not put a dry rub on them. To me those are euphemistic words for chemical tenderizer. End of story.”

Carson notes that ribs aren’t cheap anymore. You can pay as much for a plate of ribs as for a steak, but the lines out the door at his restaurant show many people are happy to spend the money.

I ask the owner to recommend his signature meal: “Cornbread, coleslaw, slab of ribs, au gratin potatoes,” all made on the premises, he says. When I ask about sauces, Carson stops me. “I got one sauce. I always think that if I go to a restaurant and they have eight different kinds of barbecue sauces that maybe they don’t have one great one,” he says. The bill for this abundant feast is about $25 and worth every penny.

With so many great chefs and bluesmen having passed, some may wonder if the traditions that have given Chicago such visceral vitality can live on. Muddy, Mahalia and Willie are long gone, yet traditions are being kept alive by Chicago stalwarts such as Lil’ Ed, Otis Clay and Buddy Guy, and so many others who learned from the masters.

Blues players and the people who put out their records are confident the music will endure because it keeps changing with the times. Lipkin, the spokesman at Alligator Records, notes that artists such as Lil’ Ed are “playing the blues the way it’s supposed to be played,” writing lyrics that are “meaningful now.” To this day, Lipkin adds, Chicago blues remains “a sound that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

Lil’ Ed himself remains optimistic about the future of Chicago blues: “A lot of people say that the blues might die away, but I think blues, all blues, will last forever,” he says with a smile. “You know why I say that? Because everybody has the blues, and the blues is going to be here all our lives. Even the young generation has got the blues. It’s something that will never go away.”

Then Lil’ Ed ends on a hopeful note. “You might be sad today, but the grass is always greener on the other side.”