Living (and Hearing) History: Chicago Blues Musicians Share Music and Perspectives with UChicago Students

By: Jake Smith, Fourth-Year Student and Civic Journalist for Chicago Studies

On Thursday, May 2, partway through his lecture on the development of Chicago blues music, veteran bluesman Matthew Skoller paused, pulled a harmonica from its case, and captivated the roomful of UChicago students with several minutes of soulful riffs.

Once the demonstration finished and the students’ applause died down, Skoller continued where he had left off, explaining how themes like race, history, and authenticity have influenced contemporary blues culture.

Skoller was a guest lecturer in Intensive Study of a Culture: Chicago Blues, an anthropology course taught by Professor Michael Dietler in which students examine Chicago blues as a distinct musical genre and cultural phenomenon. Skoller is the second of three local musicians who will give guest lectures as part of a Course Connection through the Chicago Studies Program of the University Community Service Center (UCSC).

Dietler, an anthropologist who studies the cultural significance of alcohol, feasting, and colonialism, started teaching Chicago Blues in order to help students access what he considers one of Chicago’s greatest cultural offerings. “I've always been a big blues fan. I play harmonica myself," Dietler said. “And it struck me that there were a lot of students who passed through the university for four years without really recognizing what existed around them in Chicago.”

While Dietler has offered the course every spring quarter since 2005, this is the first term in which he has been able to bring in local musicians, due to the Course Connection funding from the UCSC. “Blues musicians don't get paid a lot,” Dietler said. “It seemed to me that it was not fair to ask them to come in and donate free time for Chicago students.”

According to Dietler, the guest presentations give students an entirely new way to relate to the course material. “I can play clips for them. I can also explain about the history of the Great Migration and the transformations of the music—the more kind of intellectual things that you would expect from the course,” Dietler said, “but there's also a personal dimension of somebody who has grown up as a musician in this milieu that I think is communicated in a different way by somebody who has really participated in it.”

Skoller was the second guest artist, after fellow harmonica player and Blues in the Schools program founder Billy Branch. Guitarist John Primer will present at the end of May.

Over his decades-long career, Skoller has shared the stage with a number of Chicago blues figures, including harmonica legend Jimmy Reed and vocalist Koko Taylor. But beyond his musical credentials, Skoller has also taken an activist role in preserving the legacy of blues music. He helped produce the 2009 Grammy-nominated Chicago Blues: A Living History, which featured modern reinterpretations of classic blues songs, and he now serves on the Board of Governors for the Chicago Chapter of the Recording Academy.

Speaking firsthand as both a musician and music historian, Skoller offered the Chicago Blues students his perspective on the state of blues culture today, punctuated with colorful anecdotes and live demonstrations of musical styles.

Skoller discussed at length his experiences as a white musician learning his craft at the hands of black bluesmen. “It was the black artists that encouraged me, that thought what I was doing was worthy of their tutelage and their time,” Skoller said.

He spoke frankly about the tensions that have developed as white musicians have come to dominate an originally African American art form. “You see a lot of the African American musicians being shut out of their own music, and we need to do something about this. It has to change,” Skoller said.

Skoller also referred to the more mundane challenges of earning a living as a blues musician. “It comes in cycles. There was really a blues revival in the mid-eighties through the nineties and you couldn't turn the television on without hearing blues music in ads, and I got to do jingles for McDonald's and Sears-Kenmore,” he said. “And as abhorrent as that was, it paid the rent.”

Nevertheless, Skoller appeared optimistic about the future of Chicago blues. "The blues always is so central a root to everything that we do that people continue to learn about it and it's never gonna go away,” he said. “It's not gonna die. People like to say the blues is dead, or the blues is dying—never. It will not. It's alive and well, and it's in good hands.”

For students, the guest lectures offered rare—and entertaining—firsthand glimpses at the blues world that exists outside of the classroom. "They were both harp players and it was just great to hear their different stories and where they came from,” first-year Lauren Feldman said of Branch and Skoller. “To have real contact with these amazing blues musicians is just fabulous."

“It's always interesting to talk to someone who really is a master of their art that way,” fourth-year Diego Baena added of Skoller’s presentation. "It's a way of seeing living history and enjoying yourself immensely at the same time.”

For more information about Professor Dietler, the guest lecturers, or Chicago blues today, check out the following links: