New York had Tin Pan Alley, Memphis had Beale Street, New Orleans had the French Quarter, and Chicago had an open-air market that was first recognized by the city in 1912 and declared a “blighted area” by that same city in 1996. The neighborhood could be dicey–my father drove a Wonder Bread truck in the Maxwell Street area and was robbed more times than he could count–but from the 1920s through the 1980s, the Maxwell Street market was the cradle of Chicago blues. From the beginning, it was a curious mixture of performers ranging from blind musicians playing for food and amateurs playing to spread the gospel (or buy liquor), to talented big-name musicians like Muddy Waters and Little Walter, who liked the atmosphere, or up-and-coming talents who needed the exposure.
Blues fans and blues history buffs will want to pick up a copy of “Maxwell Street Blues,” not only because the 1981 indie documentary has been newly restored, but also because it comes with a 23-page booklet that tells the history of the Chicago marketplace that went the way of the dinosaurs in 2000.
Maxwell Street market was headed for the tar pits back in 1980, when this was filmed. The University of Illinois – Circle Campus, which opened nearby in 1965 because of the politicking of Mayor Richard J. Daley (who three years later would become world famous as a result of riots at the Democratic National Convention), never integrated well with local residents. The expansion-minded university pushed the city to close the Maxwell Street market so they could build student housing in the area. Eventually, politics won, despite the area’s rich history and even though a famous scene from “The Blues Brothers” was shot here, while “Hill Street Blues” used the Maxwell Street police station as one of its locations.
Filmmakers Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky capture some of the history, though they don’t go all the way back to the “Irish, who built the roads,” or the Greeks, Bohemians, Russians, Germans, and Italians that followed.” “Maxwell Street Blues” begins with several still photographs from the early 1910s, when Russian and Eastern European Jews became the dominant group along Maxwell Street started an open-air market modeled after European ones. Then there’s video from the 1920s and later decades. But mostly it’s color footage shot in 1980 as the duo makes a pilgrimage to Maxwell Street, where you could buy just about anything and hear just about anything.
Curiously–but just as much a part of local culture–the journey begins with a ride on “The Happy Bus,” a Chicago city bus driven by an unapologetically proselytizing driver who praises Jesus and wishes each of the customers God’s blessings. Then, the footage mimics what you’d see if you had just gotten off that bus and walked the Halstead/Maxwell Street area, stopping to watch musical performers like Blind Arvella Gray, Blind Jim Brewer, John Henry David, Carrie Robinson, Floyd Jones, and Coot Venson.
The performances, like the area itself, are a little raw and rundown. They’re not the best blues I’ve heard there (yes, I made it to Maxwell Street myself, on several occasions), and as they play against the rundown backdrops of buildings, junkyards, and rubble, it starts to feel like a wake for this once-vibrant area. Crowds in this film are much sparser than in previous decades, and there are no more famous musicians to be found here. But even a belated documentary about an area like this is better than none at all, and you still get a sense of what the area was like in its hey-day.
The filmmakers also talk with many of the musicians in their own homes, profiling especially the two blind musicians and also spotlighting Robinson. Not all of them are easy to understand, and the sound quality suggests that there wasn’t much in the way of a boom mic–just whatever microphone was built into the camera. The interviews could have been edited a little more tightly, but then a short film (56 minutes) would have been even shorter. And truthfully, this isn’t a very artful documentary. You get the feeling that the filmmakers were less interested in that than they were in documenting a passing culture–the way Alan Lomax did with his Library of Congress recordings of folk and blues music. In this, they’re successful.
“Maxwell Street Blues” is a pretty rough film, even with the restoration, but, despite the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it doesn’t look half bad stretched to fit a widescreen TV. There’s plenty of grain and the brighter colors tend to bleed a little at the edges, but you know you’re watching guerilla filmmaking in action and so you accept the roughness as a part of the experience.
The audio appears to be a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. No details are given on the audio, but identical sound comes out of both front main speakers. Like the video, the audio is a little rough–maybe even rougher, since we get a lot more ambient sound than seems ideal.
Facets came up with some nice bonus features, starting with that 23-page booklet. It features an introduction by filmmaker Linda Williams, a long feature on Maxwell Street blues by blues historian Justin O’Brien, and a valuable timeline of Maxwell Street. On the disc, a feature on the restoration explains that dust particles and analog video noise were the two biggest offenders that were removed to make the film cleaner and more watchable. Included are before/after demos. Then there’s a photo gallery of shots taken by Paul Procaccio, whose photos also appear liberally in the booklet. And there’s an interview with O’Brien sitting on a couch and talking about the Maxwell Street blues. There’s some overlapping with his essay, and he wasn’t coached to look into the camera. The sound, too, is nothing more than the small pick-up microphone in the hand-held camera, so it’s a little rough. But for a title like this, I didn’t expect any extras. To get these is a nice surprise—especially that history of Maxwell Street.
Photos above the story are from Paul Procaccio, with the exception of the shot of Blind Arvella Gray, the first shot presented here. That one, which looks as if it could have come right out of the film, was shot by Tom Smith, who photographed the Maxwell Street Market beginning in 1976. He has a slides gallery too that you can check out. Note the paper cup pinned to Gray’s shirt, for tips.
Most of the musicians in the film have died, and so has this South Side institution. The original Maxwell Street market is a thing of the past, and that’s what makes this film all the more precious.