Immigration, Transformation, and the Electric Blues in Chicago – Part 2

Essential Question

How did the early and mid 20th century immigrant and migrant population of Chicago’s Maxwell Street neighborhood help foster the development of Electric Blues?


In Part One of this lesson, students considered the influx of population to Chicago from the perspective of Polish and Jewish immigrants as well as blacks from the American South. In Part Two, students will focus on the transformations that occurred in the Maxwell Street neighborhood to explore how these new Chicagoans helped create the “American” genre of Electric Blues. Students will view clips from the Sonic Highways “Chicago” episode, view an excerpt of Mike Shea’s 1965 documentary of the Maxwell Street Sunday Market And This is Free, and work in groups to consider how Blues artist Muddy Waters 1941 Mississippi recording and 1957 Chicago recordings might represent larger transformations of people and culture. The extension activities encourage students to apply the logic of this two part lessons to short written essays.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the Maxwell Street area of Chicago and the multiethnic community that settled there
    • About the formal and informal economies that developed in the Maxwell Street neighborhood of Chicago
    • How the urban environment of Chicago helped transform “Plantation Blues” into  “Electric Blues”
    • About Chess Records and Blues recording artists Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to describe how migrants and immigrants helped shape Electric Blues in Chicago.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Can you think of any music that is “from” a specific location? What do you know about who created it? How do you think the place they live influenced the music they make? (Encourage students to think of Hip Hop–where is it “from”? Are there different kinds of Hip Hop from different places? How might they distinguish them? Or, try “Country” music as an example using a similar line of inquiry.)


  1. Tell your students that one of the Chicago neighborhoods in which Poles, Jews and blacks all settled was the “Near West Side” district, and that businesses were founded on Maxwell Street in that area in particular. Now play Clip 3, “Maxwell Street” and ask your students:
    • Where did Leonard Chess come from?
    • What does Buddy Guy say people called Maxwell Street?
    • Who do you see performing in this clip? Where are they performing? How does Marshall Chess suggest these musicians made money?
  2. Play Clip 4, “Excerpt from ‘And This is Free’,” Mike Shea’s 1965 film of the Maxwell Street Sunday Market. Ask students:
    • What do you see happening in this clip? How might you describe the Maxwell Street Market? (Encourage students to discuss the variety of activities they see in this clip: salesmen, preachers, musicians, spectators.)
    • What strategies have the various people seen here embraced to make themselves noticed? (Students may note the extroverted nature of the sales people, the dramatic presentation of the preacher, and the electrified performance of the blues. Everyone is a performer.)
    • How do you think a public space such as the Maxwell Street Market might help shape the community of people that participates in it? (Encourage students to consider the diversity of people at Maxwell Street, as well as the culture and even products they introduce to the space.)
  3. Divide the class into groups and distribute Handout 3 – Transformation at the Maxwell Street Market. If students have personal devices, have them play “Burr Clover Farm Blues” and “Got My Mojo Working” within their groups, otherwise, prepare to play the songs for the class. Have groups read the handout and respond to the prompts. Then discuss the prompts as a class, with each group sharing their answer to one of the four sections.
  4. Play Clip 5, “Music and Urbanization.”
    • Why do you think Marshall Chess might suggest that, in Chicago, “Plantation style blues didn’t work any more?” (Encourage students to consider the urban environment and its soundscape, as well as the newly urban people and their changing aesthetics.)
    • In what ways other than music do we hear about and see Muddy Waters representing an “urban” or “cosmopolitan” identity in this clip?

Summary Activity:

  1. In Clip 5, Dave Fricke suggests, “cities are changed by the people that go there, but then the cities change them as well.” In what ways have you seen this happen within Chicago in this lesson?
  2. How do you think the place in which you live might have been changed by the arrival of new populations?
  3. Can you think of any ways the place you live has shaped your life?

Extension Activity:

  1. Examine the title, color key, and labels on “Community Settlement Map for 1950” which was issued by the City of Chicago Department of Development and Planning (Included on Handout 1). Write a short essay that addresses the following:
    • What does the map key address and what does the text at the bottom of the map say? How was this data compiled?
    • Do you think this is a reliable source of information? Why or why not?
    • Which ethnicities seem to be concentrated in large areas?
    • How do you think this impacted Chicagoans’ daily life?
  2. Chicago Blues influenced a number of different musicians and genres. Chicago, in many ways, became a mecca for multiple genres of music. Based on the artists introduced by Sonic Highways, conduct independent research on an artist from the list below and address the following.
    • What was his or her relationship to Chicago? Where they from Chicago? If not when did they move there?
    • What genre of music is this artist or group related to? Were they influenced at all but the Blues or Chess Records?
    • Identify a song by this artist or group. How is this work indicative of their style or their voice?
  3. Select from the following artists:
    • Muddy Waters
    • Etta James
    • Chicago
    • Cheap Trick
    • Naked Raygun
    • Wilco
    • Kanye West
  4. Exploring the sound of urbanization:
    • Find The Complete Plantation Recordings (1943) and I’m Ready (1978) albums by Muddy Waters. Pick one song off of each recording and answer the following questions for each:
      • What instruments do you hear?
      • What do you think the lyrics might be about?
      • How do you think Muddy Waters’ music changed between 1943 and 1978?
      • In what ways do you think you might hear “geography” in Waters’ music?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
  • Core Music Standard: Connecting
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.