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MultiPac Review -- And This is Free...Maxwell Street

 And This is Free: The Life and Times of

Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street

MultiPac DVD, CD, booklet

Schanachie Entertainment

 maxwell-dvd-art

 

By Stephanie Schorow

 

Probably every major American city has a seedy, shady yet colorful neighborhood that isn't missed until it's gone. For Boston, that neighborhood was the lively, raunchy Scollay Square; only after the area was razed in the name of urban renewal in the 1970s were its honky-tonk dives and burlesque joints celebrated.  In New York City in the 1970s, politicians vowed to clean up Times Square, but now, the influx of chain stores and upscale mini-malls around 42nd Street has people reminiscing about the good, bad old days.

 

            Chicago's legendary Maxwell Street on the city's Near West Side was one of those places that people love to remember – an open-air marketplace for bargain hunters and hustlers, for street musicians and sidewalk preachers, for someone shopping for shoes, for another seeking to save souls. In the early 1900s, the area near Halsted Street became the place for immigrants to begin their search for the American dream by running large open-air stores and flea markets as well as restaurants, delicatessens and other businesses. Then it was dubbed Jew Town -- in those politically incorrect days, a label considered no more insulting than Chinatown is today. Later, African-Americans moving north found Maxwell Street a haven for commercial activities, entertainment and music, as blues and gospel singers filled the street with song and salvation. By the early 1960s, the seven-block area was a bustling carnival of all kinds of commerce, legal, illicit and somewhere in between. By the 1990s, the market was moved to accommodate expansion of the University of Illinois and an era seemed to be over, much mourned by long-time Chicagoans.

 

            That era is revived in And This is Free, a new "MultiPac" published by Shanachie Entertainment, which features a DVD, CD and booklet chronicling Maxwell's colorful history. The DVD contains several documentaries, starting with Mike Shea's 1964 film, "And This is Free," an exquisitely shot, black-and-white tribute to the market's unique flavor. Kicking the DVD off with Shea's 50-minute feature is a bit of a gamble. This documentary contains no narrative; Shea just takes you to the street and lets the story unfold, something with the potential to bewilder the non-Chicagoan watcher.

 

            To test this, I gathered a group of Boston-area friends (I alone was a Chicago native) to watch the documentary. Even though none had even heard of Maxwell Street before, they were mesmerized by Shea's intimate camera work, which showed off the merchants, the extraordinary blue singers and the odd characters, like Casey Jones, the famed bedraggled Chicken Man who performed with a feathered companion. Even without an authoritative voice explaining, documentary style, what they were seeing, my friends "got it," and enjoyed the spectacle. So much of what makes Maxwell Street special is, paradoxically enough, universal to other urban dwellers who love the gritty soul of their chosen municipalities, those places that the tourists seldom see.

casey-jones

 

            The original And This is Free was culled from the 20 hours of footage shot on the street in the summer of 1964, and includes music by Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young and James and Fanny Brewer. Shea, a LIFE photographer turned filmmaker, went on to make feature films in Hollywood until his death in 1995. 

 

            The DVD also includes a more traditional documentary that fills in the information gaps. The 30-minute Maxwell Street: A Living Memory by Shuli Eshel examines the lives of Jewish merchants who first turned Maxwell Street into what many consider the largest open-air market in the country. The DVD also includes archival film footage and photos that give a sense of the historical sweep of the market.

 

            Those who want even more history can read through the 36-page booklet that includes more photos and more eloquent memories of Maxwell Street. As Ira Berkow, author of Maxwell Street: Survival in a Bazaar, writes in his essay, "It was a carnival, it was a bazaar, it was as some believed and perhaps with some credibility, a thieves' den; it was almost home to snake charmers, a horse that could count with a clop of his hoof, an assortment of con men, blues musicians, the self-styled King of Hoboes, an "Indian Chief" in war bonnet and penny loafers, honest businessmen, the ladies of the night (and morning and afternoon), Gypsies, Jews, Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Latinos, blacks."

daddy-stovepipe

 

The CD contains an overview of blue musicians who, beginning in the 1920s, turned the streets into impromptu concerts halls. Some of the tracks were actually recorded on Maxwell Street and include performances by Daddy Stovepipe, Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Rogers and the Baby Face Leroy Trio with Muddy Waters and Little Walter. If you love rough, raw, roots blues, you'll revel in Arvella Gray's down-and-dirty version of "John Henry" and Johnny Williams' soulful "Worried Man Blues."

 

Of course, the memories of Maxwell Street tend to soften the rough edges. Moreover, the information in the booklet and DVD is a bit overwhelming; there are a lot of stories to absorb and the profusion of details can be confusing to those who've never been to Maxwell Street, much less to Chicago; would it be too much to ask for a small map? Or even directions? But, as my friends demonstrated, those who never set foot in Chicago will enjoy the chance to explore the hustle and bustle of Maxwell Street, recognizing in its history the story of the immigrant experience in America and the birthplace of Chicago blues.

            Stephanie Schorow (www.stephanieschorow.com) is a freelance writer and book author living in the Boston area.

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