The blues scene in Detroit is kind of like the air you breathe; sometimes warm, sometimes cold, sometimes windy, sometimes still, sometimes dirty. But whatever condition it’s in, the blues is always there making noise because the blues is stubborn.
Detroit is stubborn too, so you know what that makes Detroit blues, don’t you?
This is the first of an occasional series of columns dedicated to the Detroit blues scene which, as far as I’m concerned, is responsible for some of the best blues you’ll find anywhere. Sure, there are a lot of problems. This is not an easy town to play in, believe me. A considerable number of things could be done to make the situation better — some of which will be dealt with in future columns — but the most important thing to know is that Detroit blues is worthy. This comes as no surprise to those blues musicians already working the scene, but the word of what’s going on here definitely needs to spread beyond the city limits.
Some of Detroit’s best are already going about the business of putting Detroit back on the map where it belongs. Some are spreading the word overseas while others are delivering that word on this side of the water, but so long as the word of Detroit is being spread then that’s what matters. One purpose of this column is to play as helpful a role as possible in getting that word out. We’ve got the goods, and people need to know just how good it gets.
I’ve always felt that the worst thing about the Detroit music scene is that there are so many talented musicians out here that the sheer abundance of great acts has caused the city to more or less take it all for granted. Since Motown pulled up stakes all those years ago there has been a slow, steady undercurrent of feeling that there was nothing big enough to fill the void left by the absence of The House That Gordy Built.
With all due respect to Berry Gordy and the Motown legacy, there was good music in the years leading up to Gordy, there was good music during Gordy’s Motown run, and all that good music didn’t evaporate once Gordy packed his bags. The music is still here, and so are the crowds.
The blues has been a part of this city for more than a half century ever since the days of Paradise Valley, which was paved over nearly a decade before Motown even became a force in this town. The best known bluesman, and arguably the most towering figure ever to cast a shadow over the city’s entire music scene, was the late John Lee Hooker, who got his start in the clubs of Paradise Valley before he went on to establish his reputation as a legend and senior statesman of the blues worldwide. In addition to Hooker there have been so many names, most of them deserving wider recognition, that have helped to make the Detroit blues scene as strong as it has become. Names like Bobo Jenkins, Mr. Bo, Willie D. Warren, Famous Coachman. So many more, man ...
When I first moved to this city more than a decade ago I had no idea I’d even be getting so involved in the local music scene. After all, I’d been a journalist for nearly 10 years after about four years spent in the dive bars and clubs of Chicago attempting to make a living as a musician and free-lance writer. Before leaving Chicago in 1984 I had sold my guitar and other musical equipment to pay some urgent bills and also with the belief that I wasn’t cut out for “the life” so the hell with it.
Nine years later I was in Detroit working for a local newspaper during the day and seeking out jam sessions at night. A year after that I was playing in a band, and a year after that came the newspaper strike. Just goes to show that you don’t have to go looking for the blues because most times the blues will come looking for you.
Today, seven years later, I’m sitting here in the city I love the most writing this column about the music I love the most. Guess things have a way of working themselves out.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org