This rare recording of Robert Nighthawk on Maxwell Street in 1964, just like the Maxwell Street of today, is clouded by controversy. You can read about the questionable and the shady elsewhere and form your own conclusions. Because like Nighthawk says during a portion of his talk with Michael Bloomfield, “Well, that’s a long story.” I’d rather pay attention to Robert Nighthawk and encourage you to do something to preserve what’s left of Chicago’s Maxwell Street.
Part of the Nighthawk legend is he bridged the gap between the raw pre-war acoustic delta blues sound and the more urbane blues stylings of Lonnie Brooks, modernizing the style of electric blues slide guitar to influence players like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Hearing those stories, of course I’d want to listen to Nighthawk to better hear how that might have been.
The first track here is the raw and rough “Cheating and Lying Blues” with a slashing slide solo carried through three distinct styles of playing that really puts a hurt on. Next, an upbeat instrumental that has become a standard, “Juke Medley,” written by Nighthawk’s cousin Carey Bell. Followed by an older more primitive blues, “The Time Have Come.” That’s a going-away song, with notes stinging like the meanest most accurate bee until Nighthawk gets around to an astonishing solo of so many bars I just couldn’t count them. For me, it’s always a thrill to hear Robert Nighthawk, and I am thankful people got together back in 1964 to finally get his music down.
I couldn’t believe he was playing “Honey Hush.” I had won a copy of Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” fair and square in a friendly crap game where the 78s were thrown down instead of dollar bills. Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” was mine to enjoy for years until I lost the record to a music-loving kleptomaniac who needed that record more than my friendship. By the time Nighthawk shouted out the last of the “Hiyo, Hiyo Silver"s as the song galloped to its conclusion, I discovered I still hadn’t completely forgotten that guy.
Every one of the 13 tracks is a solid delight for any blues hound, a variety of complex phrasings and mixed styles that are played with total cool control. I can hardly imagine Nighthawk working up a bead of sweat in the midst of this searing display. “Anna Lee/Sweet Black Angel” is one of the treasures here, an older blues that Nighthawk had reworked into his own version, a small hit after Muddy pulled Nighthawk into the studio to record it, and which most people will recognize from B.B. King’s later more famous version. Robert Nighthawk, like the title of his good-time instrumental says, is “The Real McCoy.”
Robert Nighthawk’s life was surrounded some say in mystery, and he had recorded only rarely under a variety of different names. He had found a niche for himself, traveling and playing in all kinds of places in the South, and everybody had seen him there. Chicago was part of the circuit, everybody went up there at some point to play, and would eventually find their way to Maxwell Street for the big Sunday open-air markets. I’d always heard that’s where the music was, people playing on the street with a cigar box or a hat out in front of them, essentially playing for free and relying on donations. They were showing off their wares and hoping to meet other players and pick up work in some of the clubs. They could do pretty good playing there on Maxwell Street.
The music on this CD was taped live during the filming of one such event by blues enthusiasts determined to immortalize Maxwell Street for posterity. Occasionally, the sound of the street seeps in, you can hear a car horn, but you can feel the energy being traded back and forth from musician to the audience. Nighthawk sings “Big World Blues” like nobody’s business. Even though “The sun is shining, I think it’s been raining all day long” when you’re cast off, unloved, and ignored, you can feel less than human,“just like a rock in the ocean, just like a fish down in the deep blue sea.”
Nighthawk isn’t spending any of the money from the film or any of the re-issues. He went from recording this in 1964 to hopping around to every juke joint on the circuit. He died in 1967 and as of 6 October 2000 his grave now has a tombstone marker thanks to Blues Aid.
That’s good that people still try to do the right thing. I do wonder why it was I had to wait 16 years until 1980 to finally hear this when it first came out, even then as an “unauthorized” version. The blues were big in between. No asking Michael Bloomfield, he died in 1981. I’m just thankful the audio portion of the film didn’t deteriorate in storage, so now twenty years after that bootlegged version there’s more of that music coming out of the box. Now blues scholars can legitimately discuss the musicians of yore, the authenticity of the street noise, who owns what, and talk about “work for hire.”
In the words of my record-company hero, Chris Strachwitz, vernacular musics and cultures need and deserve our support because “despite neglect and exploitation, local and regional based traditions still symbolize and sustain many communities.” There are bigger fish to fry. There’s a struggle going on to preserve the last remaining part of Maxwell Street, a place and cultural tradition as important to Chicago as Beale Street is to Memphis or the left bank is to Paris, France. You might consider putting some of your vim and vigor into supporting the Maxwell Street Preservation Society. This is but one of the sites: www.openair.org/maxwell/preserve.html.