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Guest Editorial
by Jay Walljasper : Project for Public Spaces

Sweet Home Chicago (and Memphis, Motown, and Vienna)

I started my career as a music critic, cranking out reviews of rock, blues, jazz, and folk bands in Iowa City, Minneapolis, and Chicago. That was a long time ago and seems a far cry from my current projects, many of which focus on chronicling the power of place to improve communities around the world. Few things seem more distant or irrelevant from the nitty gritty grassroots work of the New York-based group Project for Public Spaces, where I am a senior fellow, than tunes being heard today in clubs, on the radio, and downloaded onto iPods. I mean: What do rappers, rock stars, and country singers have to do with restoring the civic spirit and bringing life back to cities and towns?

Well, maybe more than appears at first listen.

Rap pioneer Chuck D of Public Enemy famously described rap as CNN for Black America, noting it was not just the dominant soundtrack of inner-city life but an illuminating document of what underprivileged African-Americans were thinking, feeling, hoping for, and raging against. It may not sound pretty to many people, but it’s an authentic depiction of what’s happening in those very real places in the “real world.” No one can pretend to understand the life of South Central L.A., the South Bronx, the South Side of Chicago or, for that matter, North Minneapolis in my own hometown, without engaging with this music. And certainly no efforts to make a difference in these places can be launched in ignorance of what rappers are shouting and rhyming.

Sun Studios in Memphis.
  Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photo courtesy SoulofAmerica.com

Rock represents an equally open-and-shut case for the melodic interplay of music and place. The sound and fury of rock ‘n’ roll through the decades has really been a story of local music explosions making enough noise to be heard around the world. Born out of an orgy of musical influences, although Mississippi blues and hillbilly country signed the birth certificate as parents, rock spent its nursery years around Memphis in the care of Sun Studios. But soon came time to hit the road, Jack, and rock was drawing attention in Cleveland (where it got its name) and then on to Surf City, Liverpool and Swingin’ London, Motown, L.A. for folk rock, San Francisco for the summer of love, a few years lost wandering in the ‘70s, down to Georgia (Macon to be precise) for Southern rock, back to London and New York for punk, Seattle for grunge, and on and on.

But these were only the most famous stops. Dozens of other local scenes bubbled over with enough raw energy to draw the attention of the music world for a few moments and leave their mark on the progress of the genre. Philadelphia (doo-woppers). The Pacific Northwest (the Ventures, the Kingsmen of “Louie, Louie” fame, Paul Revere and the Raiders). Memphis again (Booker T & the MGs, the Box Tops, Stax Records). Jersey (Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Little Steven). Akron (Devo, Chrissie Hynde in the beginning). Athens, Georgia (B-52s and REM). Minneapolis (Prince, the Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum). What about the ongoing rock ‘n’ roll circus up in Detroit (Mitch Ryder, ? and the Mysterians, MC5, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Eminem, the White Stripes)? And most recently, Omaha (Bright Eyes, Beep Beep).

And country? Well, the name certainly speaks for itself as a musical style deeply rooted in a particular sets of places. Not to mention its other alias: the Nashville scene, Austin City Limits and the Bakersfield sound.

Music, more than any other American art form or entertainment industry, truly reflects the rich geographic diversity of our country. It’s never been dominated by New York or Hollywood like theater, movies, TV, art, dance, and publishing. Jazz is strongly associated with New Orleans and New York, with crucial side trips to Chicago, Kansas City, and the West Coast. The blues came growling out of Mississippi and Chicago. Cambridge and Greenwich Village were legendary for their folk music scenes, with Old Town in Chicago and the Troubadour club in L.A. not far behind. Memphis (once again) for R&B and rockabilly. Even disco, seemingly the most artificially concocted musical brew, can be traced to Philly, where it started life as the Philadelphia Soft Soul Revolution. Go-go, the short lived and grossly underrated mid-‘80s dance groove, sprang out of Washington D.C. House music’s techno-charged roots are in Chicago, while Techno was born in Detroit although it spent a lot of time in Germany growing up.

Concert in front of Vienna's City Hall.
Open-air concert held in front of the Vienna, Austria city hall.
Photo courtesy Aviom Technologies Group.

Looking around the world, it’s the same song. Even a lot of the classical repertoire, often touted as the most universal form of music, is inseparable from Vienna. The opening of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is a beautiful evocation of the countryside just outside Vienna. You can take a streetcar to the village suburb of Heiligenstadt and still see the sort of setting that inspired him. Many other lands proudly trumpet their national composer: Poland (Chopin), Finland (Sibelius), Norway (Grieg), Czech Republic (Dvorak, Smetana), Hungary (Bartok).

Music is interwoven so thoroughly with geography that just a few notes often serve as all the introduction we need to understand that the action in a movie or TV show has shifted to a new spot on the globe. Plucking on the mandolin or strains of an opera aria clue us in that we’re going to Italy. A tinkling, discordant sound, perhaps with some wailing, means we’ve arrived in Asia since that’s our stereotype of the continent’s music. The opening bars from “La Marseillaise” establishes France as the setting for the next scene, just as mariachi music does for Mexico, and banjo picking for the rural American south.

While the power and meaning of music certainly travel well, there’s still something rich in hearing favorite styles on their home turf. I have enjoyed few aural experiences that match the pleasure of hearing blues bands blast in smoky little joints on Chicago’s South Side; Cajun musicians letting it rip at Mulat’s bar in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana; or reggae bands under the palms in Jamaica. Perhaps, best of all, was finding my way to non-descript tavern on the west side of San Antonio, which had been recommended to me as the Fillmore West, the Preservation Hall, the CBGBs, the Ryman Auditorium, the Carnegie Hall of norteno music. I was literally the only “Anglo” in the place—although truth be told I don’t have a drop of English blood and the polka-inflection of Tex Mex music reminded me a lot of Oktoberfests celebrated with fellow German-Americans back home in the Midwest. Two stages were set up on opposite sides of the hall, so dancers need never take a break until overcome by thirst or exhaustion. I was even invited over to join a woman’s birthday party even though my progress in Spanish stopped dead after failing the subject in 10th grade.

This summer I got another surprising lesson in musical geography. I have never cared much for the pop music I hear non-stop in Greek restaurants and groceries around Minneapolis and elsewhere., even though I do greatly admire how Greeks and their American cousins have not succumbed the homogenizing tide of American pop pap that you hear almost everywhere else across Europe (although France puts up some resistance). From my days covering ethnic nightclub beat for Chicago magazine, I know the heights Greek music is capable of scaling. But, as with most American music, what I generally hear coming out of random boom boxes and sound systems seldom sparks much interest.

But coming back from several weeks in Greece, I’ve had a change of heart. As I hoped, I heard some very good bouzouki and accordion music played in the streets and tavernas, but I also came back humming some of the pop tunes I once regarded as unredeemable schlock. I’ve even bought a few CDs of the stuff, starting yet one more obscure sub-category in an overflowing record collection. It may have been the wine, the intense sun or the casually seductive soul of Greece but this music now stirs something in my soul. The most likely explanation is that now I have a distinct and beguiling place with which to associate it.

Chicago Blues Festival.
  Standing room only at the Chicago Blues Festival, in the shadow of downtown.
Photo courtesy ChicagoFestivals.com.

Why is a sense of place usually an ingredient in the best music? That’s because great musicians—from Louis Armstrong in New Orleans to the Beatles in Liverpool to Edith Piaf in Paris to Grandmaster Flash in the Bronx—generally get their start by performing for hometown audiences, where they develop their skills and gain a following. Some start right on the sidewalks, busking for change from passers-by, and then graduate to the clubs. When not on stage they are out on the town, hanging out in coffee houses and record shops and bars, listening to other players, exchanging ideas and songs, jamming, making the connections that lead to new musical breakthroughs.

But all of this depends on a vital public realm—a particular part of town where musicians can bump into each other with a minimum of planning and effort. That’s why the East Village in New York, 6th Street in Austin, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Wicker Park in Chicago, and Sunset Blvd. in L.A. have turned out so many bands. You don’t take classes to become a pop star. Lively neighborhoods are your university. The more concentrated social activity and nightlife in a place, the more opportunities for talented performers. And the more fun for music fans. That’s why you rarely hear of hot music scenes in auto-dominated suburbs.

So from this perspective, it makes perfect sense that my current passion for promoting lively and vital neighbohroods began way back in the smoky bars of the Midwest, in the wee hours of the morning, as I happily pursued my passion for musical authenticity.


Jay Walljasper is a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces and Executive Editor of Ode, an international magazine of news and ideas published from Rotterdam, Netherlands. He lives in Minneapolis and writes widely about the power of place. His book, The Great Neighborhood Book, written in conjunction with PPS, will appear June 2007 from New Society Publishers.
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  American Roots Music : PBS

The American Music Center

A Passion for Jazz!

Austin City Limits Music Festival

Chicago Music at Metromix.com

Greek Music Live

History of Detroit Music

London Music Guide

Music of New York City

New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park

Paris Voice : Music

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Southern Rock

Sunset Strip

Viennese Culture : Music

World Music Central


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