All the street's a stage.
January 4, 2008 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Chicago's Maxwell Street Market wasn't just a market: it was a stage that played host to many an exuberantly ragged, hard grinding blues performance. It was lively, eccentric, ecstatic. You could get there on The Happy Bus. And of course, one of the greatest musicals in the history of American cinema paid homage to the street, as the setting for a fabulous performance by John Lee Hooker of his iconic "Boom Boom". (Note: See mouseovers for link descriptions.)

There have been several documentaries made on the subject of Maxwell Street. Here's a little info on one called Maxwell Street Blues.

There's a bit of interesting information here and there at this site, And This Is Maxwell Street, though it's mostly designed to advertise the CD of the same name. This CD, by the way, features the music from the 1964 Maxwell Street film documentary, called And This Is Free. The Robert Nighthawk clip in this FPP (linked to under hard grinding) is from this film, which, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have been rereleased on DVD. This page has some info on the film and capsule bios on the musicians seen in the film and/or heard on the CD.

Here's an extended trailer for the documentary "Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street".

Maxwell Street: Still Hanging On.

Maxwell Street Wikipedia page.

And just for good measure, here's another version of John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom. And what the hell, for extra good measure, here's his powerfully understated, riveting Hobo Blues, from 1965, which is probably my all-time favorite JLH performance on film.

And thanks to my buddy Ken Kawashima, who sent me the Carrie Robinson YouTube link that got me started on tracking all this Maxwell Street stuff down.
posted by flapjax at midnite (19 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
That's a tremendous set of links, flappy. And the footage of Carrie Robinson demonstrates why atheism has never really caught on... godlessness just can't make a person feel like that!
posted by MinPin at 6:01 AM on January 4, 2008

Wow, thanks for this, flapjax. My pop took my brother and me to the Maxwell Street Market in the '60s, and it was a real treat for a young tyke from the white bread suburbs. It was a flea market to end all flea markets, and had characters to match.

Unfortunately, as a tyke from the white bread suburbs, I had not yet developed a sense of what blues music was (and let's face it, I didn't have the blues), so I missed out on all of that.
posted by SteveInMaine at 6:05 AM on January 4, 2008

My first encounter to Maxwell Street went something like this: I had just moved the big city from little college town Michigan. My roommate's girlfriend was visting us and her car got broken into. They had stolen the crappy stereo and she called the cops. After filling out the requisite forms, she jokingly asked them when they think they'll get get crappy stereo back. Oh, we all had a right laugh and then the cops told us that we could probably find it for five or ten bucks down at Maxwell Street the following morning. So, there we were, Sunday morning, in the middle of the most magical land in the universe: the Maxwell Street Market. I bought a banana and a pack of irregular socks. It was also the first time I had one of these. Yum!
Dare I say what the Southsiders call the market?
posted by NoMich at 6:22 AM on January 4, 2008

Oooh, this is so cool! I went to architecture school nearby Maxwell St., and we were always creating stranges pieces of furniture and giant models that got tossed at the end of the year, and inevitably they would show up for sale shortly thereafter. I miss it, I've not seen any other market like it!
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:38 AM on January 4, 2008

Dare I say what the Southsiders call the market?

Say it, man, say it! I'm dying of curiosity!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:43 AM on January 4, 2008

Actually, come to think of it, you're probably referring to Jewtown, right?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:01 AM on January 4, 2008

Yep, Jewtown it is. Yeesh.
posted by NoMich at 7:04 AM on January 4, 2008

I've heard it referred to as Jew Town by the locals many times. Doesn't seem like that is going away soon. When I moved to Chicago in 1987 I had the opportunity to play on Maxwell Street and did on two occasions (a guy named "Barkin' Bill" and someone else who I forget). It was also my first real exposure to soul food. I hadn't been back down in that area for quite awhile until a couple years ago. My friend and I were looking for some coffee on our way back from the south side and we noticed a Caribou coffee shop. I jumped out of the truck and realized that where I was standing was once the heart of Maxwell Street. Now it was scrubbed squeaky clean and in its place were completed period facades along with the strip mall trappings all made to look like it had been here forever. It made me sort of sad. Maxwell Street was a great place. Now its just some place you drive through on your way to other things in Chicago.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:12 AM on January 4, 2008

Another Nighthawk/Maxwell Street link.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:17 AM on January 4, 2008

If you drive around the near west side, some of the old hot dog stands still have handwritten signs for a jewtown polish. A time capsule to another time. Nice post!
posted by zerobyproxy at 7:47 AM on January 4, 2008

..."one of the greatest musicals in the history of American cinema"...


posted by mwhybark at 8:01 AM on January 4, 2008

I like it like that
Whoa, yeah!
posted by caddis at 8:33 AM on January 4, 2008

I remember going to Maxwell Street in 1968 and marveling at it all: the vendors, the squalor--down to squats with newpapers in the windows in some abandoned brownstones nearby--down to squats with newpapers in the windows in some abandoned brownstones nearbythe whole mix of people and even a blues band playing on the street. Who could have included Robert Nighthawk for all I knew but little did I know at the time. It was like nothing I had ever seen and I count myself so lucky to have it seen it at all. It was heartbreaking to see what they did to it. This is a very excellent post.

Many scenes from Louie Bluie also take place on Maxwell Street
posted by y2karl at 8:37 AM on January 4, 2008

Yes. Really.
posted by stenseng at 8:41 AM on January 4, 2008

Yay! Thanks flapjax!
posted by tiny crocodile at 9:49 AM on January 4, 2008

In "Boom Boom", John Lee was actually walking down Detroit's Hastings Street not Chicago's Maxwell Street. While Chicago is known for blues and Detroit is known for R&B, John Lee Hooker earned his blues fame on the streets of the Motor City not Chicago.
posted by jomama123 at 1:10 PM on January 4, 2008

.."one of the greatest musicals in the history of American cinema"...


based upon the quality of the music, definitely.
posted by caddis at 8:05 PM on January 4, 2008

Amazing post!
posted by not_on_display at 6:12 PM on January 5, 2008

hey flapjax, great stuff you collected here! Isn't that Carrie Robinson singing and dancing amazing? I miss the old Maxwell STreet market so much, i used to go there after every Taildragger gig on the West Side to eat really delicious hot dogs with grilled onions and hot peppers. Every once in a while I also would run into Maxwell street Jimmy Davis there, who was one of the great West Side bluesmen (see the absolute must have cd, "Rare Chicago Blues, 1962-1968, which features Jimmy's great song, "Someday Baby"). The University of Illinois in Chicago bought out that land, i believe. There was resistance to it, but, well, it wasn't enough. Gentrification = anti-blues! But for any of you who enjoy this kind of blues, please try to look up another recently obsolete blues institution: The Delta Fish Market, which was located at the corner of Jackson and Kedzie, and in a renovated gas station-turned-fish market.
posted by catfish distraction at 7:50 PM on January 9, 2008

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