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SXSW: 'Born in Chicago' explores '60s blues hand-off

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AUSTIN, Texas -- A day after it was announced as a featured documentary at next month's annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, "Born in Chicago" had its world premiere here at SXSW on Wednesday afternoon.

The film, directed by John Anderson, chronicles the history and tall tales from the generation of young, affluent white kids who gathered in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s, learning to play the blues from the men who had honed the music on their own. Narration by Marshall Chess (son and nephew of the Chess Records founders) mixes into interviews with Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg (who co-produced the film) and excellent footage of the late Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. On the other side are snatches of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus interviews with Sam Lay and the great Hubert Sumlin.

"Born in Chicago" makes Bloomfield, a wealthy Jewish guitar virtuoso (a fact he presents in a funny bit of old footage), appear something of a valiant crusader for crossing the mid-century racial divide, bearing his instrument. Goldberg relates a templated tale of him and Bloomfield venturing into the South Side one night to sit in with Howlin' Wolf -- and the hush that came over the club when two white boys walked in. All that's missing is the record-scratching clip from the Dexter Lake Club in "Animal House."

The film's problematic thesis, though, seems to be that this particular appropriation wasn't like all the other black cultural exploitations by white musicians -- because Muddy and Wolf and the gang were apparently so thrilled to be noticed, appreciated and revered by these upper-middle class dilettantes. Chess himself drives the point home about "these white kids treating 'em like stars," and Goldberg assures us that "people recognized the respect we had for their music." Musselwhite -- himself the subject of a current generational rediscovery thanks to his recent collaboration with Ben Harper -- insists, "These guys ... were so flattered we knew who they were." Just because the original bluesmen welcomed their exploiters, however, does not mean they weren't exploited.

Even Jack White mentions what a "shame" it is that it takes white people to "legitimize" something like this, apparently never stopping to consider that the music previously had been perfectly legitimate for black people. So only when white people -- a bunch of Brits, no less, once the Stones showed up at Chess -- stamp their approval does a music become 2 legit 2 quit? Same song, umpteenth verse.

Steve Miller probably sums up the reality of the situation better than anyone in the film: "Everybody talks about it like, oh, these white kids. We were competing with Howlin' Wolf for gigs. ... It was business."

Catch "Born in Chicago" at the CIMM fest in Chicago, April 18-21. Four-day passes are on sale now.

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I'm not sure why the tone of this article is skeptical and cynical about the genuineness of the bonds of friendship and collaboration that united these young white kids and their black mentors. It was a bold move to defy convention and enter an all-black club in the 60s to pursue one's love of art. To classify this as exploitation instead of admiration and mutual respect seems to miss the mark completely. Chess, Musselwhite, Goldberg, Siegel, Gravenites, as well as Sam Lay, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy (who are black) tell the same story. Why do you question their sincerity by telling a different story? You weren't there. They were.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on March 14, 2013 1:33 AM.

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