The truth about the blues

Opinion: Columns

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Stan West

Given the structures of patriarchy that have long existed within black and white communities, a white Dominican University sociology professor seeks to the set the record straight — that black women created the blues — with her weekend-long "Blues and the Spirit Symposium" this Friday, May 18, and Saturday, May 19, at the River Forest college.

According to a prepared statement by Dominican sociology professor Janice Monti, organizer of the third biennial blues symposium, this event focuses on the racial appropriation and gender representation in the blues and will include performances by four of Chicago's most renowned blues divas, as well as an after-party with Grammy winner Sugar Blue.

"Blues is the backbone of American culture," Monti said in a phone interview. "We should give it the credit it deserves. It deserves the same legitimacy as jazz, rock, classical and other musical art forms. The heritage musicians have been pushed aside, African Americans in general, black women in particular."

Prof. Monti explained that the symposium will open Friday evening with a high-powered panel discussing the current state of the blues. Panelists include Sugar Blue, Billy Branch, Matthew Skoller, Wayne Baker Brooks, Dietra Farr, Sharon Lewis and others. After the panel will be an award reception for Marie Dixon, widow of blues great, Willie Dixon, founder of the Blues Heaven Foundation, located in Chicago's historic Bronzeville neighborhood. Then participants will be bused to Berwyn's Harlem Avenue Lounge where a quartet of blues divas, including Peaches Staten, Dietra Farr, Nellie Travis and Sharon Lewis will perform. All panels, presentations and receptions are located in the Shaffer Silveri Atrium, Blumn Auditorium and Martin Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Building in Chicago's Loop.

On Saturday morning at Dominican, renowned University of Mississippi blues scholar Dr. Zandria F. Robinson, will deliver the keynote address titled, "Gotta Sing on the Beats: They Bring Us Gender, Class and 21st Century Blues Epistemology." Her address will be followed by a panel on "Ladies Sing the Blues: The Lived Experience of Chicago's Blues Divas."

The afternoon session dives into the intersection of hip-hop, R&B and blues with great speakers like University of Missouri-Columbia musicologist Stephanie Shonekan, formerly of Chicago's western suburbs; Dartmouth's Ernest Gibson, who specializes in race; and University of Colorado-Colorado Springs' Stephanie Rose, who focuses on gender issues, plus others.

The closing keynote address will be delivered by Duke University's Black Popular Culture Professor Mark Anthony Neal, who will be introduced by Oak Park's own George Bailey, who created the popular Columbia College "Blues as Literature" class I now teach, and whose students offered a 30-second commercial on "Linda's Place," the only Chicago-area blues club owned by an African-American women (

After Neal's provocative talk, attendees will be bused to Rosa's Lounge on West Armitage where Sugar Blue will sing the "blues truth."

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