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Windy City's Storied Blues Legacy in Focus for New Chicago History Museum Exhibition

Chicagoans will get to explore how blues music was electrified and amplified in Chicago, where it captured the attention of musicians and music enthusiasts worldwide, in the immersive and interactive exhibition, Amplified: Chicago Blues, that opens on Saturday, April 7 at the Chicago History Museum.

“Blues music helped southern black migrants forge connections and transform an unfamiliar, often inhospitable city into a new home,” said Joy Bivins, director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum. “The Chicago blues sound, rooted in the past, reflected the realities of a new life that was taking shape in the Midwest metropolis.”

The photography of Raeburn Flerlage, a local record distributor and photographer of the city’s music scene, provides the foundation for the interactive exhibition. His images documented the streets, clubs, homes and studios of the 1950s and ‘60s, where a community of musicians defined the Chicago blues sound. 

“Flerlage captured a critical moment in the development of Chicago blues,” said Bivins. “His photographs bring to life the artists who developed and refined the sound as they shared the music in their homes and throughout the city.”

Interactive experiences provide ample opportunities for visitors to experience the blues hands-on. Visitors are invited to write and sing their own blues song, or belt out a blues classic in a club setting that pays tribute to the live performances that energized south and west side Chicago clubs. Visitors can design their own album cover, drawing inspiration from Flerlage’s collection of album photography; an interactive mixing board demonstrates how recording engineers helped shape the Chicago blues sound; while a digital guitar interactive guides visitors through basic blues chords and scales to play rhythm or lead guitar.  

​Most Chicago blues musicians of the period arrived and brought their musical traditions during the Great Migration, the large-scale movement of African-Americans from the South to the urban North. Images, text, audio and an animated film, tell this story.

Artist spotlights will feature some of the originators and practitioners of the Chicago blues sound, including Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor and Muddy Waters. Deeper explorations of the artists and their music are available on the museum’s complimentary iPod touches, or by downloading the CHM Media app on personal devices.

​A collection of over 45,000 photographic images and papers related to Raeburn Flerlage’s life and professional career is now available to the public through the museum’s research center, which holds the museum’s archives, manuscripts, prints and photographs and more.

Admission to the exhibition is included with regular museum admission ($19 adults/ $17 seniors and students, and free for children 12 years of age and younger and Illinois residents 18 years and younger). The exhibition will run through August 10, 2019. For more information on Amplified: Chicago Blues, visit chicagohistory.org/blues.

​Public programs will take place throughout the run of the exhibition. They include “Civic Talk: Chicago Blues,” a discussion with Joy Bivins and legendary blues harmonica player and singer Billy Branch; the Blues Bus Tour that stops at Chess Records; and a three-part Blues Community Concert Series in Fall of 2018.

​As part of the museum’s dedication to accessibility, sign language interpreters are available by request and special tours for people who have low vision or who are blind will be available by request beginning in June.


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Chicago Blues Legend Koko Taylor will be one of the area luminaries profiled in Chicago History Museum's new exhibit, Amplified: Chicago Blues (photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum).

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