A City’s Musical Portrait

“Tool maker, stacker of wheat,” Carl Sandburg called the great Midwestern city in his 1914 poem, “Chicago.” “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” A native of downstate Illinois, Sandburg had moved to Chicago from Milwaukee two years earlier to jumpstart his career as a journalist, editor, and social commentator. His now famous poem, republished as the anchor-piece of his 1916 collection, Chicago Poems, captures the grittiness, squalor, danger, and corruption of the city, just as it conveys the vitality of Chicago’s people and the robustness of its urban industrial life.


Sandburg observed these traits in the city’s musical life as well. He had developed his interest in folksong as one of the truest expressions of common people’s triumphs and travails during his time riding the Midwestern rails, hobo style, in his late teens and again after leaving Lombard College in 1902. In Chicago, he began to apply the rhythm, inflections, and spirit of folksong to his poetry, and he launched a project to collect and codify the rich trove of American folksong in Chicago and beyond. The result was The American Songbag (1927), a landmark anthology of American folksong published not for scholars, but for home use. Among the many noteworthy Chicago composers he employed to make piano arrangements for the Songbag was a young Ruth Crawford. She would soon move to New York to study composition with Charles Seeger, whom she then married, becoming Pete Seeger’s stepmother and later giving birth to Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny.


One need only begin peeling back layers for the unfathomable richness of Chicago’s musical heritage to become apparent. Understandably, it is most closely associated with the rise of electric blues in the postwar era. Today, the city’s musical tourism industry relies heavily on visitors’ desire to experience an “authentic” Chicago blues club or to see the site of Chess Studios on South Michigan Avenue. But Chicago’s musical history comprises much more than just its role as the epicenter of urban blues and the birthplace of The American Songbag. The city’s Bronzeville neighborhood was an early hotbed of jazz, where transplants from New Orleans transformed the music from a creole street romp into a sophisticated vehicle for improvisational mastery. Chicago became the birthplace of modern black gospel, when a former barrelhouse piano player known as “Georgia Tom” Dorsey fused blues and jazz elements with Christian hymnody and began cultivating such great talent as Mahalia Jackson.


Country and folk music, too, have long and distinguished legacies in Chicago. The WLS National Barn Dance was America’s most popular and widely heard country music variety show during its heyday of the 1920s and 30s, and the model for Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Chicago was also the site of many of country music’s landmark recordings, including the first sessions to document the creation of bluegrass by Bill Monroe and his band. During the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, Chicago’s scene, which produced such luminaries as John Prine, Steve Goodman, and Ed Holstein, was perhaps second only to that of New York’s Greenwich Village. The opening of the Gate of Horn and Earl of Old Town folk clubs in 1956 and 1962, respectively, the founding of the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1957, and the start of the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1961 are just a few of the city’s proud folk-music milestones. And in the late twentieth century, Chicago emerged as a vibrant center of the alt-country movement, with artists like Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, Wilco, and Freakwater, with much of this activity revolving around Bloodshot Records.


The current project was conceived by Old Town School of Folk Music teaching artist and Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Matt Brown, and was produced by Brown and Liam Davis. It pays a small tribute to the city’s enormous musical legacy with fresh renditions of songs associated with Chicago and original compositions by current Chicagoans.


The album opens with a song whose title is all too familiar to every Chicago motorist, “Heavy Traffic Ahead.” The original is a bluegrass classic by the lineup of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys widely credited with creating the genre we now call bluegrass. Produced by Art Satherley, head of country and blues A&R for Columbia Records, Monroe’s recording was made just after 8:00 p.m. on Monday, September 16, 1946 in the WBBM-CBS studio in Chicago’s famous Wrigley Building (the site of many landmark recordings in the mid-twentieth century). Though not released until 1949, it was the very first song cut at this now famous 1946 session featuring Monroe on mandolin and lead vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass. Here, Steve Dawson remakes the blues song and its swinging bluegrass beat into a driving rockabilly rollick that kicks everything off with a no-holds-barred exuberance.


Soul legend Sam Cooke is the source for “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” the remake of which features Dawson backed by vocalists Keely Vasquez and Liz Chidester. Born in the Mississippi Delta, Cooke grew up in Chicago and got his professional start singing with The Soul Stirrers, one of the city’s most successful black gospel quartets. Next up is “It’s Just That Simple,” written by Wilco bassist John Stirratt. An emotionally stark love song, it’s treated here to gorgeous vocals by Dawson, Gia Margaret, and Elise Bergman, the arrangement brought to a powerful climax by backing horns and Brian Wilkie’s wailing pedal steel guitar.


“I’m Mississippi Bound,” featuring producer Liam Davis in a duet with Keely Vasquez, was written and originally recorded by Alabama duo The Delmore Brothers (Alton and Rabon) for Victor Records’ Depression-era budget label Bluebird, on December 6, 1933. The Delmores had joined the Grand Ole Opry earlier that year, and had already made one recording trip to Chicago in April. The December sessions, supervised by Victor’s Eli Oberstein, almost certainly took place across from the Drake Hotel in Victor’s Chicago studio at 952 North Michigan Avenue, a three-story building that burned down in 1971. Gia Margaret takes over lead vocals on “Just for a Thrill,” written by Lil Hardin Armstrong, who met and married Louis Armstrong in Chicago in 1924. Lil was an important contributor to Louis’s groundbreaking Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings as pianist and songwriter, helping to define the sound of Chicago jazz that laid the foundation for swing and bebop.


Chicago alt-country, bluegrass, and songwriting legend Robbie Fulks penned “How Lonely Can You Be?” specifically for this album. Steve Dawson shows both his sensitivity and power as a vocalist here, navigating the song’s distinctive chord progressions and emotional trajectory with convincing ease. Keely Vasquez’s rousing take on “Shake Your Head” is a fine tribute to the original version by Barbara Carr, a Chess Records vocalist who got her start with the famous South Side R&B label in 1960. “Only You,” written by Chicago musician and Big Sadie co-founder Collin Moore, goes honky-tonkin’ through a different part of the city’s musical history, reminding us of the days when local legends like The Sundowners held regular stints at Chicago country music clubs like the Double-R Ranch on Randolph Street in the Loop back in the 1960s and 70s. And if his vocal and guitar skills weren’t enough, Dawson shows off his songwriting chops on the sensitive, Hank Williams-inspired “A World Without You,” where we also get a satisfying dose of producer Matt Brown’s tasteful fiddling.


The album closes with a tribute to another of Chicago’s famous musicians, Big Bill Broonzy. One of the most influential popular musicians of the twentieth century, Broonzy was on the cutting edge of the blues urbanization that accompanied the Great Migration of African Americans from the Deep South to northern industrial centers, especially Chicago. Broonzy himself arrived in Chicago from his native Mississippi in 1920, working as a Pullman Porter and at various other jobs, all while playing “rent parties” and at the Maxwell Street Market. His recording career began in the 1930s, pioneering a new, more swinging and sophisticated approach to blues that pointed the way toward its postwar electrification in the hands of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and others.


In the 50s Broonzy was embraced by the growing folk revival movement, and was even present when the Old Town School of Folk Music opened its doors in the former Immigrant State Bank Building on West North Avenue on December 1, 1957. Unable to sing anymore at that late stage of his life, he played guitar that night for an enraptured audience of about 300, while instructor Frank Hamilton outlined Big Bill’s right-hand technique on a blackboard. As described in Bob Riesman’s excellent biography of Broonzy, I Feel So Good, Frank Hamilton proceeded to teach the technique to some of the eager students in the room. It is not hyperbole, therefore, to state that Big Bill Broonzy’s music directly inspired the Old Town School’s folk music instruction, which continues to thrive today in this most musical of cities.


Given his unparalleled importance to Chicago’s musical history and his important association with the launch of the Old Town School of Folk Music (where Matt Brown, Steve Dawson, Gia Margaret, Aaron Smith, and Robbie Fulks all work or have worked, and where Broonzy’s guitar remains on display), it is fitting that this album should close with Big Bill’s “Long Tall Mama.” This music stands on big shoulders, indeed.

Gregory Reish

Director, Center for Popular Music

Middle Tennessee State University

The On Big Shoulders band is:

Steve Dawson - vocals, acoustic guitar & electric guitar

Brian Wilkie - pedal steel & electric guitar

Aaron Smith - acoustic & electric bass

Gerald Dowd - drums


Gia Margaret - lead vocals on "Just For a Thrill" and background vocals on "It's Just That Simple" & "How Lonely Can You Be?"

Elise Bergman - background vocals on "It's Just That Simple" & "How Lonely Can You Be?"

Liam Davis - lead vocals on "I'm Mississippi Bound," piano on “I’m Mississippi Bound” & “It’s Just That Simple,” and organ on “Shake Your Head”

Keely Vasquez - lead vocals on "Shake Your Head," harmony vocals on "I'm Mississippi Bound," and background vocals on "I'll Come Running Back to You"

Liz Chidester - background vocals on "I'll Come Running Back to You"

Anna Jacobson - trumpet on "It's Just That Simple"

Evan Jacobson - trombone on "It's Just That Simple"

Matt Brown - fiddle on "A World Without You"

Engineered by Shane Hendrickson at I.V. Lab Studios

Mixed by Liam Davis at Abbey Street Studios

Mastered by JJ Golden at Golden Mastering

Produced by Matt Brown & Liam Davis