Reheated blues: The thrill is gone

Sociologists call it “commodification.” But the musicians David Grazian met in the tourist-oriented blues clubs in Chicago just call it “the set list from hell.”

Night after night they play a carefully packaged, unchanging repertoire of blues standards mandated by club owners. “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett is always on the set. So is “Got My Mojo Working’” by Muddy Waters, “The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King and, of course “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson.

Grazian, an assistant professor of sociology, first turned his after-hours relaxation into a Ph.D. dissertation.Now he has published his research in a book titled “Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs” (University of Chicago Press).

“I was a grad student at the University of Chicago and discovered that the sociology I was reading about in my classes was really coming alive in the clubs where I was spending time goofing off,” Grazian explains. “It was the perfect laboratory. The issues I was interested in—commodification of popular culture, race relations, social interaction—emerged full blown in Chicago blues clubs.”

“ Commodification”—the processes through which social and cultural relationships are packaged, manufactured, staged, even fabricated, and sold—competes with “authenticity” for the heart and soul of the popular culture consumer. “This is what Marx and Hegel would call a true example of a dialectic,” Grazian says. “You have two contradictory trends driving each other. There is a nagging sense that people are looking for something to counter the plasticity of much of our popular culture.”

But, authenticity is a moving target. “Everything is authentic—what else would it be?” Grazian asks. He decided try to understand how different kinds of people involved in the blues scene—musicians, club owners, regulars and tourists, all of whom eventually become cogs in Chicago’s tourism promotion machine—use the concept of authenticity in their everyday life.

The central problem raised by the search for authenticity in blues music is that it is often represented by a handful of overblown caricatures. In “Blue Chicago,” Grazian writes, “authenticity takes the form of...ramshackle joints...dimly lit...unbearably slightly dangerous black urban neighborhoods. They only hire...uneducated black men afflicted by blindness...with a wooden leg…” The list goes on and on. “These stereotypes wind up perpetuating a number of generalizations that many Americans have about African-American culture.”

“What does a blues musician play when there is no audience to pander to?” Grazian wondered. “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zepplin was one answer. “What I discovered is that the kinds of music they like to play isn’t what blues fans consider authentic, but covers a wide-range of musical styles from hip-hip to rock and roll to jazz.

Grazian will deliver a 60-Second Lecture on “The Difference Between Blues and Jazz” Sept. 17. See “What’s On.”

Originally published on September 4, 2003