Just before Sumlin's casket was lowered into the ground, young Chicago blues artist Shemekia Copeland stood at his graveside and sang "Life's a Rainbow," her arms outstretched to the coffin. Barely 30 people showed up at the funeral — which was paid for by Sumlin admirers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — bidding silent farewell to a bluesman who left Chicago years ago, dying in New Jersey at age 80.
Fly away from here, Mr. Sumlin.
The ground in New Jersey has gone cold. ...
When you ever gonna learn,
Chicago always gonna be your home.
Drive away from this evil world, Mr. Sumlin.
Drive that old car back to Silvio's.
But Sumlin wasn't the only Chicago blues master who left us in this dark year for the music.
CHICAGO BLUES -- NOW
This is the final segment in a four-part series about the Chicago blues scene.
Part 1: Can an ancestral art form survive?
Part 2: Blues 101: A new generation tries to learn | Photos | Video
Part 3: Playing the blues in black AND white | Photos
David "Honeyboy" Edwards, the last of the original Mississippi Delta bluesmen, died in August at age 96, having performed tirelessly as singer-guitarist until a few months earlier. His death cut our last direct link to blues pioneer Robert Johnson and the other creators of the genre who had played with Edwards in his youth.
Pinetop Perkins, who brought the art of rambunctious blues piano playing to a pinnacle, died in March at age 97, his capacity to make the keys rumble and a band holler virtually undiminished until his last days. If blues piano-playing had a patron saint, it was Perkins, who performed his miracles in Southern roadhouses and Chicago saloons, and in February became the oldest person to win a Grammy Award, for "Joined at the Hip: Pinetop Perkins and Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith."
Smith died this year, too, in September at age 75, his drum work immortalized on Muddy Waters' treasured recordings of the 1960s and '70s, Smith's rhythms also powering Pinetop Perkins' bands during the last years of both their lives.
All these men — Sumlin, Edwards, Perkins and Smith — picked cotton under the scorching sun of the Mississippi Delta early in the previous century, in the aftermath of slavery. Their music gave voice to that era and brought it to Chicago, where they invented an urbanized blues that would become inextricably bound with this city but now is heard here less and less.
CHICAGO BLUES -- WHO WE LOST
The Chicago blues scene lost some very important people in 2011:
David "Honeyboy" Edwards
From this point forth, the blues must struggle on without them.
The road to oblivion
No musical genre goes away entirely. The devout still sing Gregorian chant — among the oldest known written scores — in select cathedrals. Guillaume de Machaut's 14th century motets turn up in performances of early music groups. Operettas by Franz Lehar, folk songs of Appalachia and even disco hits of the Bee Gees enjoy an afterlife in remote corners of our musical culture.
Ever since notes could be etched on paper, no beloved music has gone completely silent, especially since recorded technology emerged in the late 19th century. But some genres have become so peripheral to American lives as to be reduced to historical footnotes. Studied by academics, performed by die-hards and applauded by connoisseurs, they're forgotten by nearly everyone else.
This is where Chicago blues is headed. A once visceral, urgent, profoundly complex music that told the story of a people — and, in so doing, ricocheted around the world — is slipping from public embrace in its primary home, Chicago, and beyond. Nearly banished from radio and TV, practically absent from the popular press and rarely heard in schools, real Chicago blues must be sought out, and only the most intrepid listeners find it.
The idiom that gave us the ferocious vocals of Muddy Waters and the rumbling chants of Howlin' Wolf now subsists in a few South and West Side joints and emerges strangely reconfigured in more commercial outposts downtown and on the North Side.
When, on rare occasions, the blues gets mass-media exposure, the results often are unfortunate, as in a recent TV commercial for Viagra, of all things. A truncated version of Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" unfolds in snippets in the ad, Sumlin's guitar riffs whinnying softly in the background. It's a far cry from the sight and sound of Wolf and Sumlin braying before roaring audiences in an earlier era.
So why should we care? Why shouldn't the blues go the way of Gregorian chant and Renaissance madrigals? What's the difference between Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" and the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love"?
Quite a bit. In a city — and a country — still sharply divided by race, ethnicity and class, the blues illuminates how we got here. If Charlie Patton's imploring vocals and Tommy Johnson's full-throated cries evoke the legacy of slavery, Perkins' ebullient pianism and Edwards' soaring vocal phrases speak of triumph over historical tragedy. The music that gave birth to jazz, gospel, rock and soul clearly holds a singular place in American culture. Or ought to.
WHERE TO HEAR CHICAGO BLUESFollowing are Chicago venues that feature blues on a regular basis. Some offer music on select nights, so it's always worth phoning in advance.
Artis's Lounge, 1249 E. 87th St.; 773-734-0491
Blue Chicago, 536 N. Clark St.; 312-661-0100
B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted St.; 773-528-1012
Kingston Mines, 2548 N. Halsted St.; 773-477-4647
Lee's Unleaded Blues, 7401 S. South Chicago Ave.; 773-493-3477
Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-342-0452
Water Hole, 1400 S. Western Ave.; 312-243-7988
Other musics could still arise from the core of the blues — but only if the sound is not lost to coming generations that need to hear it live, vital and uncorrupted.
Imagine Germany without Beethoven, France without Debussy and Ravel, Argentina without Piazzolla.
That's Chicago without the blues, a city diminished without its autobiographical sound.
Now's the time
The question is whether we let it happen. Whether the blues continues to atrophy in the clubs. Whether 21st century kids will encounter it anymore. Whether the music that once thundered becomes a whisper, drowned out by a popular culture that's indifferent to it, at best.
Chicago, unfortunately, has turned its back on this music. While jazz thrives in clubs and concert halls, while classical music flourishes in citadels such as Symphony Center and the Civic Opera House, while alternative rock shakes up music rooms across the city, the blues barely registers on the city's cultural consciousness. Unloved by funders, infrequently backed by City Hall, barely championed by its own organizations, the blues has been left to fend for itself in a harsh local environment.
Even so, a few determined souls are trying — quixotically — to give this music a future in Chicago. But 47-year-old blues guitarist Fernando Jones can reach only so many kids a year through his immersion-style Blues Camp. And septuagenarians such as saxophonist Eddie Shaw, mid-generation players such as Billy Branch and rising stars such as Shemekia Copeland are busy trying to keep their own careers airborne. For all their gifts and passion for the blues, they alone cannot pull it from encroaching obscurity.
So the moment has arrived for Chicago to do something, for the blues stands at a critical juncture. Its infrastructure crumbling, its founders now gone, its young talents battling to be heard, the blues cannot continue on like this for long. What happens in the next few years will determine whether the music recedes into the twilight of nostalgia or — against significant odds — re-emerges in full brilliance in the city that long had nurtured it.
If the blues is to survive, much needs to happen. The commercially oriented downtown and North Side clubs have to break out of their rigid performance schedules, which cycle the same familiar artists onto their stages week in and week out. If the major clubs don't take big chances on new voices and new songs, they're dooming their establishments — and the art form itself — to stagnation at best, unintentional self-parody at worst.
The languishing South and West Side spots, meanwhile, desperately need help from the city in the form of promotional support, tax incentives, shuttle buses — anything and everything within the purview of local government. If City Hall can champion a North Loop theater district and underwrite a slew of downtown music festivals (including a Chicago Blues Festival shrunk from four days to three), surely it can throw its weight behind its struggling blues-music clubs.
Meanwhile, the foundations that generously fund the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago — all internationally revered institutions — ought to extend a hand to Chicago blues, an internationally revered art form. Neighborhood spots such as Lee's Unleaded Blues, on the South Side, and the Water Hole, on the West Side, enjoy no philanthropic connections and receive no largesse, except the small tolls they charge at the door and the drinks they sell afterward. They need help — from foundations and corporations on all sides of Chicago's racial divide.
But the owners of these struggling music rooms may have to reinvent themselves as well, perhaps establishing nonprofit status to accept charitable funding. That is, if they can afford the thousands of dollars and spend the long hours involved in making the transition in the first place, a considerable burden in itself.
If the blues is to sing on in the 21st century, high schools and universities have to introduce the music to young listeners, who encounter it virtually nowhere else. Kids disseminate culture faster and wider than anyone — they could rejuvenate the blues as no one else can, if they only had a chance to hear it, study it, play it, talk about it.
Finally, Chicago blues foundations and blues entrepreneurs need to learn how to grab a piece of the philanthropic pie, if the art form is to exist outside a small, fragile and declining scene.
It's possible, of course, that we already have permanently relegated the blues to museum status, regarding it as a quaint curiosity from a distant time, ideal for entertaining conventioneers, but not much more. If so, the next era of music in Chicago will be that much hollower, as if the city's core sound never happened.
Can the blues survive in Chicago another 100 years? Or another 10?
It's up to us.