Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Third World Press
by Mark Thompson
A Professor Emeritus in the African American Studies and English Departments at the University of Chicago, Sterling D. Plumpp is a noted author and essayist with fourteen books to his credit. He is also an esteemed poet who has used language to blend the sounds of blues and jazz with the deep emotions that are part of the African American diaspora.
His latest book celebrates his friendship with the late Chicago bass player Willie Kent. Plumpp wrote the lyrics to several songs that Kent recorded. Now he attempts to use Kent’s “voice” to narrate the familiar history of the northward migration of a people looking to escape the bondage of cotton fields in the cities full of gleaming skyscrapers. Plumpp expertly shifts from Kent’s perspective to his own and then to a view that encompasses the trials and tribulations of a minority struggling to gain equal footing and a sense of place.
The classic blues songs have lyrics that paint vivid pictures in the eye of our imagination. The words are a form of poetic expression that range from bawdy to eloquent declarations of elemental human passions. The challenge for Plumpp is to create a similar experience using language but without the benefit of the musical accompaniment.
His method is to strip his thoughts down to their bare essence and then break the handful of words down even further, splitting some of them between lines in order to create new words that carry a wealth of meaning. He also mixes in references to other Chicago blues musicians in addition to familiar blues images in order to keep the reader grounded.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is titled “Maxwell Street”, a tribute to the famous area of Chicago that served as an open air market where people from various cultures shopped and mingled in an atmosphere of respect that was none too common at the time. The voice of Kent relishes the excitement and music of the market but can’t escape remembering the past –
(#4 – I Paraphrase)
“West/Side Story” is the middle section. Plumpp probes the dreams of a migrating population as they collide with the cold, gleaming steel realities of the big city. The sense of moving on without ever getting anywhere is targeted in this vivid passage-
a hundred miles
to go. And I had
a merry go-round/for
(#12 – Tracks)
The final section is “Ramblings/Down Inside”. Here Plumpp/Kent cry out over the hurt and broken dreams that surround them, giving rise to the powerful blues music that gives voice to that anguish as well as the joy of people who refuse to give up or be broken. The blues musicians are their spiritual advisors –
for picks. Fits/the spinal
columns/on his guitar.
As strings. I/saw him
mad/with a rattler/a
round/his little finger. As/a
slide. That’s/why he called
The Hiss Doctor.
(#33 – Rituals)
With each reading, different parts of Plumpp’s articulate vocalizations hit home. This is a book to be savored for its ability to stir your soul or give you pause for reflection. This volume is definitely recommended for blues fans or anyone who enjoys a fresh approach to the written word.
Originally published by Blues Blast Magazine. Thanks to Bob Kieser for permission to reprint this review.