American Roots Music Chicago

"American Roots Music: Chicago" provides a history of Chicago blues, jazz, and folk music through archival photographs and film. Several notable musicians, such as B.B. King, Koko Taylor, Pete Seeger, and Jeff Tweedy reflect on what they've inherited from their predecessors. Harold Ramis narrates biographical segments on Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey, Benny Goodman, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, the Staple Sisters, Willie Dixon, and Big Bill Broonzy. The documentary also covers the rise of folk and polka in Chicago. Other topics include the Great Migration, the rise of radio and phonograph records, electric musical instruments, the National Barn Dance radio program, and the Old Town School of Folk Music. The documentary ends with a sampling of musical genres and venues active in Chicago.

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1:08Copy video clip URL Open to a close-up of someone strumming an acoustic guitar. The words, “American Roots Music,” are superimposed over the video. Cut to a shot of the Chicago River looking west over the Tribune Tower. Harold Ramis narrates an introduction to a special episode on Chicago music: “The wellsprings of American music are found not in the conservatories and libraries, but in the rich grassroots traditions of the people themselves…” Various archival shots of musicians.

1:37Copy video clip URL Title card: “American Roots Music: Chicago. Narrated by Harold Ramis.” Cut to footage of the wheels of a steam locomotive spinning. Another shot of the locomotive entering a terminal and then a shot of the tracks passing below the front of a train. Cut to a shot of the Chicago River looking east over Lake Michigan. The Carbon and Carbide, Tribune Tower, and Wrigley Buildings can be seen. Louis ‘Studs’ Terkel explains the Great Migration of black people from the south to Chicago, “The City Called Heaven.”

2:02Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of the Wrigley Building (?). Blues music plays under Studs Terkel’s narration.

2:03Copy video clip URL Cut to Koko Taylor: “I look up and saw those bright lights. I had never seen so many bright lights before in my life. I said, ‘Good God, this must be heaven…'”

2:19Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of two young black men carrying luggage beside a paved road. Ramis: “The Great Migration began in the early 20th century, bringing hundreds of thousands of African Americans up from the south to Chicago.

2:23Copy video clip URL Ramis continues to narrate. Cut to an archival photograph of three young black women and a young black man carrying supplies.  Their backs face the camera as they walk along a railroad track. Cut to an archival photograph of the Chicago skyline.

2:27Copy video clip URL Cut to Timuel D. Black, Jr.: “Many things happened because of the quality of the blacks who came. They came here for a better life.” Cut to an archival lithograph of the Chicago stockyards. Studs Terkel narrates: “The stockyards were there, the steel mills were there, the Chicago Defender–the most famous of all African American newspapers. That was the means of communication. That was how the sharecroppers heard about Chicago.”

2:39Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of the front page of the Chicago Defender, October 23, 1937. Cut back to Studs.

2:48Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of a steam locomotive, “Southern 14036” box freight cars, and two barrel freight cars on separate railroad tracks. Ramis: “Recently built roads and railroads carried the new residents to Chicago along with newly developed, distinctly American forms of music.

2:52Copy video clip URL Cut to film footage of a group of black men singing and laying down railroad track in the arid American west. Ramis describes the influence of work songs and spirituals on blues music.

3:07Copy video clip URL Cut to archival film footage of a group of young black men singing. One is playing a banjo. Ramis: “Mass produced musical instruments from mail order catalogs helped to fuel evolving music forms.”

3:23Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of a large group of children standing outside Anton Schermann’s steamship ticket store. Unknown location. Ramis describes the confluence of internal black migration into Chicago and immigration into Chicago from places all over the world.

3:30Copy video clip URL Photograph of W.H. Sajewski’s phonograph store. Unknown location. Cut to a photograph of a man sitting in front of an early record player. This photograph fades into another photograph of a woman holding a record. Ramis describes the influence of technological innovation on American music. Cut to an early 20th century aerial drawing of downtown Chicago.

3:54Copy video clip URL Cut to photographs of an all-black band with their instruments, another all-black band standing on a floor above a dining room, and another all-black band seated for a portrait. Their instruments sit in front of them. A trumpet plays over the shots of these photographs. Ramis: “By the early 1920s jazz had become the most original and the most exciting American art form, and Chicago was heavily influenced by musicians migrating from the jazz hotbed: New Orleans.” Cut to a photograph of an advertisement for King Oliver’s Jazz Band.

4:17Copy video clip URL Photographs of a young Louis Armstrong, a young Lil Hardin, Armstrong’s band The Hot Five, Armstrong with his trumpet, then film footage of Armstrong playing his trumpet, and finally a photograph of Armstrong and his trumpet. Ramis describes Armstrong’s work while in Chicago.

5:16Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of a man playing a phonograph record. Jazz music plays over the photograph. Cut to photographs of Paramount records for “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” by Ida Cox and “‘Ma’ Rainey’s Black Bottom” by Ma Rainey. Ramis describes how Chicago emerged as a media center during the rush on music records. Richard March: “One of the types of music that was being recorded at the time was what was referred to as ‘race music.’ It meant African American music, and it was largely blues and early jazz.” As he narrates, a photograph of an advertisement is shown for records by Bessie Smith, Sara Martin, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Monette Moore.

5:45Copy video clip URL Ramis narrates over an advertisement for “New Paramount Blues” and describes how jazz launched Wisconsin-based Paramount Records. He narrates over advertisements for “Ida Cox Best Blues” and Ma Rainey. Cut to photographs of Rainey, an advertisement for “Black Bottom,” and then Rainey with her band.

6:23Copy video clip URL Cut to film footage of someone playing Boogie-woogie piano. Robert Santelli: “A lot of great boogie-woogie came out of Chicago in the 1920s. Pinetop Smith and Meatlocks Louis, Albert Ammonds and Pete Johnson, these were all great piano players who developed the boogie-woogie sound that later on was appropriated by rock and roll and by jazz and it was very popular.”

7:11Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of the Chicago skyline. The Wrigley Building is illuminated by spotlight. Photographs are shown of the Grand Terrace, The Vindome, and the Regal. Timuel Black, Jr. describes how white people would come to the south side of Chicago to visit these clubs.

7:32Copy video clip URL Cut to photographs of Benny Goodman, including Goodman as a child in a Jewish boys’ band. The front of the base drum has Hebrew written on it. Richard Wang gives a brief biography of Goodman.

9:11Copy video clip URL Cut to photographs of people with their home radios. Audio of an announcement for barn dance radio. Cut to a photograph of three generations of a farm family standing outside their home. Ramis talks about white in-migration to Chicago from Appalachia. As Ramis describes how these people brought country music to radio in the form of the barn dance. Featured is a photograph of a farming family crammed into a car, film footage of three workers building a radio antennae on the top of a building, footage from inside the Sears and Roebuck 50 megawatt radio station, WLS, an advertisement for WLS broadcasts, film footage of a family listening to the radio together, and photographs of Red Foley, Lula Belle and Scotty, the Cumberland Ridge Runners, and Patsy Montana.

9:56Copy video clip URL Photographs of George D. Hay standing in front of a broadcast microphone, a country family band, and film footage of a family listening to the radio. Doug Green narrates: “George D. Hay. It was his notion to do a barn dance; recreate the old times of long ago, and in fact that’s what my mother and uncle used to listen to way up in the jack pine woods of Ishpeming, Michigan. That’s where they learned all their old songs.”

10:10Copy video clip URL Jon Langford: “It [the National Barn Dance] was a hugely popular show. I think what the think was that WLS had a great big transmitter. I don’t think people really realized that it was from Chicago. It was the National barn Dance. It was a national show. A lot of the people who were on the barn dance became huge, national stars. I mean, Gene Autry comes to mind.” Photograph of a group crowded over a home radio and film footage of Autry playing the guitar.

10:43Copy video clip URL Doug Green: “Between Art Satherly, his producer, and Anne Williams, who was doing his radio show over at WLS in Chicago, they said, “Y’know, cowboy music is just getting more and more popular. You got to present yourself as a cowboy. You’re from Oklahoma–do it…” Green describes how the announcer would pretend that Autry would actually ride into the broadcast on a horse. Ramis then narrates and describes how WLS popularized both country and Autry. Film footage of Autry, photograph from the National Barn Dance stage, photograph of a couple listening to their home radio. Langford describes the popularization of such “hillbilly” music.

11:40Copy video clip URL Ramis describes how Hay, after one year at WLS, moved to WSM in Nashville to produce their Grand Ole Opry, “which forever altered the landscape of country music.” Photograph of advertisement for “WLS Barn Dance Favorites” compiled by John Lair.

11:59Copy video clip URL Ramis gives a brief biography of pianist Thomas Dorsey. Cut to photographs of a large brick building, Thomas Dorsey with Ma Rainey, a record cover for “It’s Tight Like That,” Dorsey at a piano, Rainey with Dorsey and band, the music for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and Dorsey with a gospel choir.

12:43Copy video clip URL Cut to video inside an assembly hall. A large gospel choir sings “Tale My Hand, Precious Lord” to a packed crowd. Cut to photographs of a young Dorsey and a photograph of a flier to organize a gospel chorus. Lena McLin: “He was a great songwriter, Thomas A. Dorsey. He did something that was sensational. He sold his songs at train stations and on corners, but he also used his head. He published those songs and he organized choirs all over the United States–gospel choirs in every church he could get around to and every city. So, he created a market for his product and so he became the publisher, the composer, and the creator of the gospel choral convention that exists today. He was very innovative.” The segment ends with a photograph of an older Dorsey.

13:54Copy video clip URL Cut to a photograph of Dorsey and a choir outside a church in Chicago. Ramis: “As Chicago became the center for gospel music, many artists emerged, but none of them would reach the popularity of the singer called the Queen of Gospel: Mahalia Jackson. Ramis gives a biography of Jackson in tandem with photographs of her. Audio of “Move Up A Little Higher,” which sold more than one million copies.

14:50Copy video clip URL Television footage of Jackson singing. Mavis Staples: “Every Sunday, we would be sitting at that television waiting to see her.” McLin: “She could sing with such intensity and feeling, she didn’t necessarily have to have a lot of instruments. Her voice was the instrument.”

15:54Copy video clip URL Video of Albertina Walker and The Caravans. Ramis: “Popular local television programs, such as TV Gospel time and the Jubilee Showcase helped maintain Chicago’s leading status in the gospel music world during the 1960s and 70s…” Photographs of James Cleveland, the Soul Stirrers, and the Barrett Sisters, and then television footage of The Staple Singers. Ramis gives brief biography on The Staple Singers.

16:57Copy video clip URL Robbie Robertson: “When I first heard the Staple Singers they had a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before. They had a way of sliding to the notes. And Roebuck Staple, his sound was quiet and whispery and it was his daughter who was blowing the roof off the joint.” Mavis Staples describes hearing the songs for the first time, and her father telling her that this kind of singing was how it was done in Mississippi. She says how her father believed they were bringing the gospel into the clubs.

19:03Copy video clip URL Photographs of a group of men standing around a locomotive, a man walking down a dirt road, a bridge drawn over the Chicago River, and a portrait of Big Bill Broonzy. Ramis: “As the Great Migration continued throughout the middle of the 20th century, some of the most influential artists in the history of the blues came from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago…” He discusses how Broonzy’s ‘urban blues’ relied on acoustic instruments, but with electric guitars, everything changed. Film footage of a blues band playing in a small basement. Marshall Chess: “Many little blues clubs developed around Chicago on the south and west side. Of course, there was electricity in these clubs, and that led to the amplification of the guitar and vocal mics, and the electric blues was really born due to that.”

19:44Copy video clip URL Photographs of Muddy Waters. Ramis gives a brief biography of him, aka McKinley Morganfield. Video of Muddy Waters describing his first years in Chicago.

20:41Copy video clip URL B.B. King: “I read somewhere most of the blues people, like myself, Muddy Waters, and many, many blues singers were all born within one hundred miles of each other.” Bonnie Raitt: “My feeling about Muddy is that you get everything you need that is great about Delta Blues–it’s haunting, sexy, mournful, playful, messed up–I mean he was all man, all blues, and the sexuality of it is just undeniable.” Marshall Chess tells Muddy Waters’s origins on an ex-slave plantation in Mississippi and his collaboration with Chess’s father in Chicago. Video of Muddy Waters singing “Got My Mojo Workin’.” B.B. King: “In modern times I think Muddy Waters did more for the blues than any of us. And I call him the godfather.”

23:03Copy video clip URL Cut to film footage of Willie Dixon singing with Muddy Waters. Ramis introduces a segment on Willie Dixon. Buddy Guy: “Willie Dixon, I would say one of the greatest blues writers that ever wrote blues music. I had a chance just to grow up under his wing myself…” Guy describes how Dixon would write about everyday life. Chess reiterates this point and refers to “the vernacular of the street.” Hubert Sumlin says how Dixon wrote songs for many musicians.

24:01Copy video clip URL Ramis introduces Howlin’ Wolf. Chess: “In Howlin’ Wolf’s case, many of his hits were written by Willie Dixon. I thought they had a real symbiotic relationship…” Sumlin calls Wolf a powerful man. Jeff Tweedy: “It’s really eye opening to hear such an individualist dictate on the blues…” Cut to  photographs of blues bands playing on the street. Buddy Guy: “It was so busy I lost track of the weekend…”

25:34Copy video clip URL Cut to video of Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and Willie Dixon playing in a blues club. Taylor: “He [Dixon] called me up at twelve o’clock at night, I’m in the bed, ‘C’mon down here. I just wrote this song called Wang Dang Doodle and we wanna rehearse it while it’s fresh in my mind…'”

27:43Copy video clip URL Cut to photographs of a group of young men sitting together with their guitars, facing a folk music instructor, a photograph of Studs Terkel, Win Stracke, and Big Bill Broonzy, a photograph of Broonzy, and then film footage of Broonzy singing. Ramis introduces a segment on folk music in Chicago.

28:31Copy video clip URL Pete Seeger: “Big Bill Broonzy, like Woody Guthrie, was essentially an intellectual. He wrote blues and recorded about 300 of them. He was a best selling blues artist from the late ’20s on into the ’40s. Then in the 50s he found a new audience with white folks. Studs Terkel was a close friend of his.” More photographs and film footage of Broonzy with Terkel’s emphatic voiceover: “Big Bill was the source…!”

29:17Copy video clip URL Film footage of Bob Gibson. Ramis transitions to the “full-fledged folk boom in Chicago.” Roger McGuinn: “When I was in Chicago I always had the impression that the real folk music scene was in the Village in New York, and that the one in Chicago was kind of like second fiddle, but it was really vibrant and there were lots of folk clubs going on…” Photographs of The Gate of Horn club, a folk duo on the street, . Terkel describes the history of the club in its hey day and then the voiceover transitions back to McGuinn. Film footage of Gibson singing.

30:37Copy video clip URL Earl Pionke remembers Gibson’s skill as a guitar player: “He was totally charisma.” McGuinn recalls a show Gibson performed at McGuinn’s high school, which inspired him to enroll at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Photograph of the School. Terkel calls it the “citadel or cathedral of folk.” Mark Dvorak gives a history of the school, which was created by Win Stracke and Frank Hamilton. Photographs of Stracke, opening night at the School, and folk music fliers.

33:38Copy video clip URL Ramis describes Chicago as a “full-fledged folk Mecca” and transitions to a segment on Steve Goodman. Video of Goodman playing guitar and singing. Pionke describes the creation of Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”

35:51Copy video clip URL Ramis introduces a segment on John Prine. Video of Prine on stage and then photographs of Prine, playbills, and Goodman.  Dvorak gives an overview of Prine’s style of folk song: “It sure did resonate with people in Chicago and around the world.”

37:44Copy video clip URL A bearded man stands outside a shop on the street during the early 20th century. Ramis introduces a segment on the Chicago Polka, “stripped down and amplified…honky style.” Photographs of a “Polka Kawalerska” advert, a Columbia Record, Victor Record, Ron Terry’s “Polka Party,” and several photographs of Lil Wally Jagiello.

38:29Copy video clip URL Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr.: “Lil Wally was a huge presence in the city of Chicago back in the 1950s and of course throughout the 1960s. And he, in my opinion, is responsible for the huge polka movement and what is considered  Chicago style polka music here in Chicago.” Video of Lil Wally on stage. Richard March: “He not only had that advantage of the amplification of sound, making a small band possible, but with the small band he could play the funky, down home Polish folk music, which is what the people of Chicago really wanted to hear.” Video and photographs of Lil Wally.

40:57Copy video clip URL Video of a master of ceremonies on stage: “Let’s hear it for Eddie Blazonczyk!” Blazonczyk begins a set. Ramis introduces the segment with photographs of Blazonczyk in his youth. Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr.: “He was very successful playing rock and roll music, and my father signed a contract with Mercury Records, and he had a couple of hits with them.” March maintains that Blazoncyzyk signed a record contract so that he could learn enough to start his own record label, which he eventually did, “Bel Air,” with his band, the Versatones.

42:19Copy video clip URL Jim Leary: “It’s a very fluid sound that borrows from hillbilly music and rock and roll, and mixes English language with Polish that hearkens to the past, but also embraces the present, and it’s a wonderful, innovative sound.” Video from Blazoncyzk’s set. Ramis’s voiceover explains that Blazoncyzk’s sound came to be known as “Dino” or “Chicago Push,” and that he had to hand over the Versatones to his son. Several photographs of Versatones’ records and video of the band touring. Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr: “This is an evolution of Cajun, Tex-Mex, zydeco, of country music, of pop music, and some of those old melodies that came over from Europe. And this is our music, this is our dance, this is an American music, this is truly an American music art form.”

43:21Copy video clip URL Video of Freeze Dried playing a song. Ted Okrzesik, Jr. explains how his band evolved out of traditional polka. He says: “We are trying to bring this music to a younger generation.”

44:18Copy video clip URL Ramis returns to jazz music in Chicago. He says that nothing epitomizes the changes in the scene than the band AACM: The Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Video of the AACM Art Ensemble of Chicago. Nicole Mitchell: “Each one of them was so unique in their own personality and in their own approach, but together they had a concept that really reflected this idea of great black music.” Fred Anderson: “They did a lot of things on stage…it was effective.”

46:11Copy video clip URL Segment on Fred Anderson and his Velvet Lounge. Video of Anderson playing the saxophone. Anderson: “It wasn’t really about me. It was about me giving them a place to play, so they could express themselves freely.” Mitchell praises the Velvet Lounge as a creative space. Video of Mitchell playing the flute with a band in an apartment. Richard Wang describes her significance in the Chicago music scene. Mitchell: “The concept is to make something from yourself…to go beyond the boundaries of what you’ve experienced in music and to try to make something new.”

47:37Copy video clip URL Ramis introduces a segment on an emerging country rock scene. Video of The Waco Brothers, led by Jon Langford. Langford: “There were strange parallels between punk rock and country music.  They were very concerned about addressing reality. Very concerned about talking about real, everyday life…”

48:41Copy video clip URL Zoom out from the Sears Tower (Willis Tower) to show the stage for the Chicago Blues Festival. Ramis describes the popularity of the Festival. Video of Billy Branch playing with an all-Asian band. Cut to Branch teaching a group of children how to play the harmonica. Branch: “What happened today, it was like the spirit of the blues, y’know, the Muddy Waters and the Robert Johnsons, the spirit just kind of pervaded the whole room.”

50:54Copy video clip URL Cut to the signage for the Old Town School of Folk Music. Ramis: “Nearly fifty years after its founding, the Old Town School of Folk Music has remained true to its initial vision: Serving the community and sharing music from all over the world.” Video of two men playing guitar. Tweedy talks about the benefits of having the School in Chicago. Video from inside musical classes.

52:13Copy video clip URL Steve Earle: “If you go to the Old Town School and you walk into the auditorium and you see sixty people taking a guitar lesson at one time, it’s the idea that anyone can learn enough about these musical instruments. It’s a break from all of the other external, electronic ways that we’ve invented to entertain ourselves.” Tweedy: “It’s become a way for us to remember how we feel and how that feeling is connected to all of human history…”

53:13Copy video clip URL Outside Chief O’Neill’s pub and restaurant. Ramis introduces a segment on Francis O’Neill, a Captain in the Chicago Police in the 19th century, who compiled hundred of Irish fiddle melodies. Video from inside O’Neill’s modern pub, where Irish fiddlers play music with traditional Irish dancers.

53:42Copy video clip URL Inside a south side Mexican dance hall, Los Globos, featuring Profetas Musical De Durango. They play a Duranguense song. Jose Favela, Jr.: “The thing I like about Chicago is its huge diversity. And everybody has their own style of living, their own culture and music like we do.”

54:32Copy video clip URL Video from inside Juliana’s nightclub, where Middle Easterners come together to sing and dance with Albert Baba.

55:19Copy video clip URL Video of the Steve Gibons’s Gypsy Rhythm Project. Gibons: “We found a combination that none of us have heard before. And it’s a result of the fact that so many different people live in Chicago.”

56:26Copy video clip URL Chicago skyline. Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr: “I think Chicago is a fantastic music city, because Chicago is such a melting pot of migration here.” Dvorak: “I think Chicago represents this great confluence of cultural energy.” Mitchell: “And then to meet different people of different cultures to try to partner with each other and create something new.” Cut to a series of photographs of musicians . Video of the elevated train passing over a crow of people, Buckingham Fountain, the skyline, and Lincoln Park end the show. Ramis: “The migrations to Chicago shaped so many music styles and changed the landscape of American music. From jazz, to gospel, to the blues, folk music, polka, and beyond, music made in Chicago has reverberated around the world. And as Chicago continues to attract people from diverse backgrounds, more musical discovery will unfold, maintaining the fertile ground that gave birth to so much musical innovation at the beginning of the 20th century and continues up to the present moment right here in Chicago.”

57:24Copy video clip URL Credits.



  1. Bob Boldt says:

    Thanks for this fine documentary of a remarkable culture. Chicago continues to contain and mix such amazing musical cross currents.
    I was privileged to know many of the performers and I remember the strength of their messages. You beautifully captured the past, present, and the future of this most American of musical traditions. Long live the Old Town School of Music!

  2. Caro Ramzy says:

    Hello, It seems that the American Roots Music Chicago Documentary has been replaced by another video. The time markers below also don’t work… If you can upload the correct movie, or forward the link, I would really appreciated it.

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