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Local Lit: Chicago Beau's book of the blues

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Bluesman Lincoln McGraw-Beauchamp, or Chicago Beau, as he is known in local and international blues circles, grew up in the 50s in a boardinghouse near 39th and Ellis, a place he recalls as "a house of blues." The building was populated with hustlers, drug dealers, prostitutes, and gamblers. The landlady ran a numbers operation on the first floor; her son was a junkie who lived in the attic. The tenants shared one kitchen, which served as a center of gambling, boozing, and carousing. Beauchamp remembers his eyes being level with the kitchen table. He saw women in colorful dresses and elaborate hats with veils who smoked cigarettes in ornate holders and crossed their legs, dangling high-heeled shoes from their toes; men in double-breasted suits with betting tickets stuck in the bands of their Stetson hats swayed to the bebop that flowed incessantly from a record player. These people lived by their wits. They fascinated Lincoln. And a blues club they frequented down the street filled him with wonder.

Today Beauchamp lives in Wicker Park and stays busy as a blues harmonica player, record producer, publisher, writer, and lecturer. His new book, Blues Stories, is a collection of essays, articles, poetry, and interviews with other blues players. In his preface--rich with autobiographical anecdotes, including scenes from the boardinghouse--he establishes the theme that informs the rest of the text: freedom and dignity through creative adventure and cultural expression.

Some of the book's material originally appeared in two magazines that Beauchamp publishes and edits: The Original Chicago Blues Annual and Literati International, the latter a semiannual journal of African American arts. Chicago Beau, who says he was given his moniker by Muddy Waters, has always considered the "blues" a cultural whole made up of a variety of elements, including jazz, poetry, theater, and African dance. Blues Stories is drawn from his various lines of work, but is above all a proclamation of his devotion to the blues.

That devotion started early. Beauchamp's godmother gave him a set of harmonicas when he was 12. His father--who had come off a southern plantation and gone on to become an attorney--disapproved of musicians, viewing them as drug addicts. He tried to discourage his son's musical aspirations. But when one of young Lincoln's baby-sitters took him to the Sanctified Church on the south side, where he witnessed an intense display of wildly celebratory gospel music and dancing, he was hooked. A musician named Billy Boy Arnold taught him, at age 14, the fundamentals of playing the blues.

In Blues Stories Beauchamp tells of leaving Chicago at age 17 "to play the blues and embrace a life of adventure and risks." He writes of landing first in Boston, drifting then to Montreal, Quebec City, San Francisco, and eventually New York. A natural raconteur, Beauchamp happily romanticizes his own history. In the preface he tells of hitting a winning streak shooting craps in Manhattan one night in 1969. As the story goes, he and companion Julio Finn counted the take after the game: $3,800. "My brother," Beauchamp said, "tomorrow we leave for Paris."

Paris became the first in a long itinerary of international cities where Beauchamp has since worked as a musician, poet, writer, and lecturer. Piano player Memphis Slim, who at the time of Beauchamp's arrival was also working in Paris, helped guide the 20-year-old through the unfamiliar city's maze of narrow streets. He also allowed the young harmonica player to join him onstage, introducing him to audiences and friends as a guest artist. This was the break Beauchamp needed to start his career.

He still plays mostly overseas, where, he says, audiences consider blues an art form and the money is better. His portfolio of press clippings is dominated by articles from French, Italian, and Japanese publications. "We were part of an era now exhausted," Beauchamp writes in Blues Stories. "No longer does youth take to the road, no longer does youth in America shout." A similar sentiment becomes central to the book, as he and other senior blues people express frustration at the younger generation's inevitable lack of interest in their values, music, and culture.

Sitting in Kiki's Bistro, a French restaurant in River North that's one of his current haunts, Beauchamp recalls a vibrant scene in Paris in the late 60s and early 70s--cafes filled with energetic, able, and enthused black artists and musicians who were always collaborating on projects. He laments the absence of such passion here in Chicago, and, echoing his father, blames drugs for lassitude and indifference among the players. Polemical harangues, like adventure stories, are staples of Beau's social and literary discourse.

"Cocaine is the drug of choice here," he says. "So many local blues people are messed up on it, and they're unable to take care of business." He says cocaine has left a depressing haze hanging over the Chicago blues scene: "It's not a healthy environment, and it's not conducive to creativity." Most blues musicians today don't write new material, he says, preferring instead to endlessly rehash a short list of old songs, not even playing them correctly.

Alcohol has done its part too. In an introduction to his interview with pianist and songwriter Eddie Boyd Beauchamp writes: "There are a few Blues players today who have to be literally led to the stage and propped up to the microphone because they are so drunk. Others have suffered violent death and injury due to drunkenness."

Also interviewed are senior bluesmen Junior Wells and Pinetop Perkins--who, like Beauchamp, have traveled the world playing the blues. We learn that in the late 60s Wells was hired by the State Department, under Hubert Humphrey, to tour the world giving cultural presentations of the blues. He visited Africa, Australia, and Vietnam, among other places.

The lectures Beauchamp has given--at institutions such as the University of Copenhagen, the Sorbonne, and Chicago's Field and DuSable museums--have titles like "Blues as Literature," and "Blues as a Social and Political Condition." He also has taught a course in Blues as Literature at Columbia College. But he worries that not enough of his peers are doing their part to sustain blues culture.

Beauchamp and Wells think that black idols like Michael Jordan have sold out their responsibilities as role models. "Heroes with all that money never address the cultural issues," Beauchamp says. "They'll talk about gym shoes or some goofy cereal before they'll ever utter anything positive for our young people regarding our culture and dignity."

Wells says young blacks "don't want to be bothered with the blues, but the white boys imitating the blues [get] richer and richer."

Beauchamp acknowledges, perhaps reluctantly, the contribution rap has made to the evolving black cultural body, but resents it as the music that has stolen young people's attentions away from the blues. In one of his Blues Stories poems, "The Poet's Bitter Observation," Beauchamp writes, "If the people are not taught to curate their own culture, then they will always be in a quandary about their identity."

Like many of Beauchamp's writing projects, Blues Stories is self-published. The book has more than its share of typos and sometimes betrays the lack of a good editor, but it is a compelling read and serves well as a chronicle of a culture. Beau will be reading from Blues Stories and playing harmonica with guitarist Pete Crawford, Thursday, February 25, at Barnes & Noble, 659 W. Diversey. The program starts at 7 PM and it's free. For more information call 871-9004.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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