When the Ragweed allergies flare up and the Farmers Markets come to an end (early this year unfortunately) I know fall is hovering close by. We made some great music and friends this year playing on the West Side at Columbus and La Follette Parks, at Austin Town Hall and on the South Side at 76th and Racine (Englewood) and 111th and Cottage Grove (Pullman).
We got to know the friendly folks who make these markets happen everyday from the Urban Canopy vendors to the folks who administer the Link Cards to the Security Officers who look out for us. And, of course, the staffers at the Park District buildings who care for the neighborhood kids and let us plug in our extension cords. Every year there is a lovely feeling of unity that gets harvested along with the tomatoes and collard greens. I am sorry to abandon them before their tenure at the markets is completed for the year but the city did not extend our contract until the end of the season, stating the budget had been depleted.
We had a pretty amazing stretch of great weather with only two rain days the whole 10 weeks! We made friends with the people in the neighborhoods. We boasted a line-up that included Blues Artists such as the Legendary Jimmy Johnson (86 years young), Deitra Farr, Tail Dragger, Eddie Taylor Jr., Lurrie Bell, Billy Flynn, Grana Louise, Tom Holland, Mike Wheeler, Omar Coleman and yours truly. We had impromptu jam sessions with Bobby Dixon (son of Blues legend and impresario Willie Dixon) at the Englewood market where his family has lived since before the Golden Age of Chicago Blues.
I saw a man stop as he got off the bus across the street from Columbus Park on Central Ave. and turn to see if the music he was hearing was being performed live. He stood and watched and listened to a song before he slowly made his way to where Billy Flynn and I had set up. He listened to our last song and walked up to us and said,
“Y’all sound real good.”
“Thank you for listening.” Billy Flynn said with the inimitable sincerity that informs every note he plays.
“You’re welcome. My Daddy was a Bluesman. My Daddy was a great Bluesman.”
“Really? Who?” Billy and I queried in unintended unison,
“Ha!” I laughed, “I knew your Dad really well and your Uncle Dave and your Uncle James!” (who was not a musician). “What’s your name?” We introduced ourselves and had a great conversation about the amazing legacy of his father and uncles.
For those of you reading this who do not know, Louis Myers was the founding member of the legendary group The Aces who backed up both Junior Wells and Little Walter (and ultimately many other artists). They helped form the sound of Chicago’s Golden Age of Blues and were seminal figures in the history of American Music. Louis was simply put, a killer guitarist. He showed me he could play everything he knew, backwards! And any harp player who wanted to go up against Little Walter had to beat Louis playing harp first, none ever did. He recorded some classic harp sides for Cobra Records back in 1956 “Just Wailing” and “Bluesy”. To learn more about Louis here is a link: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/louis-myers-mn0000227689/biography
We are still in dire need of better community outreach for these wonderful markets. Mike Wheeler and I attended a block party put on by Father Michael Pfleger across from St. Sabina Church where I jammed with the Blues band he had hired for the afternoon and then handed out flyers announcing the market two blocks away, which no one was aware of.
I had called the church a few days earlier and asked who the band would be, “Oh just some local yokels who have a Blues band, I don’t know the name.” Said one of the ministers.
I chime in, “Local yokels on a Southside Blues set could mean internationally renown artists.” “Maybe so” she chuckled uncomfortably.
Sure enough I get there and I see Ron Prince, a seriously accomplished guitarist from my days with The Kinsey Report back in the late ‘80’s. Smiley Tilmann an excellent older Bluesman who has been working a lot as of late and one of my favorite bass players the great Stan Mixon (Son Seals, Joanna Connors, Vance Kelly) whom I have known for over 30 years. And a host of other players whose names I can’t call.
I improvised some lyrics about the Market and organic vegetables “which I would eat everyday if I could/’specially since they are grown right here in Englewood!” Got some great “house” off that one.
And the best part was that it is true. The carbon footprint of the vegetables sold up on 76th and Racine is smaller than a newborn child’s footprint: the food is grown just steps away from the market. It is grown by Urban Canopy and one of its largest gardens is behind the Anchor House Senior Home, in front of which is the market.
They took an old over-grown parking lot with weeds growing through the cracks in the old asphalt and dumped yards of mulch over it and now grow giant amounts of food. Imagine how much food could be grown in the vacant lots and on the lonely rooftops of our “food deserts.”
During the day in these neighborhoods where we play the markets, Grandmothers with their grand babies in tow walk across the emptied, postage stamp sized Zip-Lock baggies that hide neatly under the blades of park district grass and glance knowingly, with a smile in their eye, at the musicians playing tributes to the electrified Delta rhythms with 12/bars across the street, a Popeye’s Chicken and no groceries available when the almighty hawk comes back to the city of no shoulders and blows everything off the streets except the consequences of a campaign designed to poison, stunt and annihilate.
The manicured park district grounds and raised-bed dandelion gardens, the shouting and laughter of summer program kids squinting in the piercing July sun (embarrassed to look at the musicians) mask the Blunt force trauma and shooting (up) that evening brings. The Markets on the West Side never made the news this summer. The Blues music next to the food stands did not make it on WGN. The Chef making vegetable stew from the market veggies and handing it to the few passers by who had discovered us by providence this summer never were spotlighted on Channel 5. But the neighborhood is on the news after the sun goes down and the children are doing their homework or are under cover(s). Englewood and Austin are on the news every night and day spotlighted for the 2,065 (Jan 1st-Sept. 10th) shootings that happen due to the fact that guns and drugs are more available than Food, Education and Health Care.
The young dancers at Austin Town hall being taught by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) who did their exercises to the elliptical rhythms of Lurrie Bell’s fretwork never made it onto the morning news. The young men and women who spent their summer gardening and laying out their bounty onto the folding tables at the market, spraying water onto otherwise wilting greens, tending to the Link Card Machine, helping seniors to their rides carrying a melon and a bag of onions never made it onto Windy City Live! No this community’s exposure to the world through mass media is relegated to the Body Count portion of our early-in-the-morning-until-late-at-night local newscast. The Body Count. 56 shot and 12 killed in Violent Memorial Day Weekend. The Body Count ‘em. Yes tell it! But don’t tell people where they can get fresh food for their children so when they go halfway across town, crossing gang lines to their new school they are nourished enough to learn something.
Well maybe next year we can get one of these fine media outlets to talk about our efforts at the Farmers Markets in Englewood, Austin and Pullman. Until then I will try and visit the markets (which are still running until the end of October) and bring some harps with me and some rhythm tracks to play along with (can’t afford to pay other musicians with zero budget).
Until then I will play my gigs and work on the 25 hours of video footage we have compiled over the last 3 years at the markets and try and show how productive and beautiful and hopeful the people who work to make these markets happen are. And how knowledgeable, appreciative and friendly the folks in the neighborhood are regarding the Food and the Music.
Matthew goes to the Black Forest (Freiburg Blues Festival) and The Muddy Waters 100 Tour with the Legendary John Primer!
And then in the studio for the next Matthew Skoller Band CD!!
Stay tuned and please join our mailing list.
Chicago, September 2015