By Jacob K. Friefeld
Step through the doors to The State of Sound: A World of Music from Illinois, the new temporary exhibit at the ALPLM, and you’re transported backstage at a concert venue surrounded by world-class artifacts from Illinois musicians. Follow the exhibit to the left and you’re standing in a world of Chicago Blues — Muddy Waters’s Can’t Get no Grindin’, Howlin Wolf’s The Real Folk Blues, and the handwritten lyrics to Willie Dixon’s I’m Wanted All over the World.
Dixon was wanted all over the world — playing venues across the United States to Europe and Israel. But like the Blues itself, Dixon’s roots were in the Mississippi Delta. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dixon remembered writing his earliest verses with his brother. They were often humorous poems about random household objects in their childhood home. But growing up in early 1900s-Vicksburg meant enduring the Jim Crow South, where white supremacy was enforced institutionally and through outright terrorism.
Few institutions were as cruel as the South’s system of crime and punishment, which entangled Dixon at a young age. Both intellectually curious about the wider world and often in need of work during the Great Depression, Dixon frequently left home and traveled around the South, even venturing as far as New York. On one of these excursions, a fourteen-year-old Dixon and his friend Shedrick walked along a Mississippi highway with a group of other Black and white travelers when the police rolled up and arrested Dixon and five of his Black companions.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the Great Depression. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library.)
The police told Dixon that he was getting thirty days on a prison farm. Prison farms were a ubiquitous part the Jim Crow system that tried to revive the forced labor of slavery by arresting, often arbitrarily, Black people and forcing them into manual labor as punishment for crimes they often had not committed. Dixon remembered Captain Crush who ran the Harvey Allen County Farm where he did time as “mean, ignorant, evil, stupid and crazy.” Faced with Crush’s cruelty even resulting in murder, Dixon found refuge in the Blues.
Dixon had been exposed to Gospel music through church, but on the prison farm he “really began to find out what the Blues meant to black people. How it gave them consolation to be able to think these things over and sing them to themselves or let other people know what they had in mind.” After seeing the horrors of the county farms, Dixon thought the Blues “kind of rubbed off on me.” Unlike Gospel, the Blues doesn’t look for redemption, it looks to lived, human experience with all its frustrations and possibilities.
Dixon escaped the prison farm and eventually left the South permanently for Chicago in 1936. He joined millions of Black Southerners who moved to Northern and Western cities during the Great Migration. This movement changed America — it made a predominantly rural, southern Black population a national and increasingly urban population. In these urban settings Blues musicians like Ma Rainey experimented and helped redefine American music.
After a short-lived boxing career, Dixon fell back on the music that had become his favorite pastime. He first made money with his music by “passing the hat” near the Maxwell Street markets but soon played gigs throughout the Midwest with Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston in The Five Breezes.
After World War II, Dixon and Caston reassembled with Bernardo Dennis as The Big Three Trio playing a light jazzy Blues. Their sound echoed through Chicago and the Midwest along with the harder Blues of Muddy Waters and turned the ears of Leonard and Phil Chess.
Immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Chess brothers founded Aristocrat records in 1947 and rebranded it Chess in 1950. Chess records went all-in on Chicago Blues after the success of Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” as performed by Muddy Waters. The Chess brothers relied on Dixon to create the iconic sound for their label. For Dixon’s part, he thought the Chesses “took advantage of everybody,” and never felt that he was paid fairly for his work. He left Chess in 1956.
Dixon had been a huge part of Chess’s success, but after leaving the label he got the opportunity to join Muddy Waters in taking Blues overseas. In Europe, Blues musicians were embraced in a way they’d never been in white America. Throughout the 1960s, the American Folk Blues Festival toured Europe and brought Dixon, Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf to international audiences.
This international phase put artists like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Jimmy Paige, and other English rockers in a position to learn from iconic Blues artists and market that sound back to American audiences. As Dixon was fond of saying, “The blues are the roots, the other musics are the fruits.”
Willie Dixon's section of the "State of Sound" exhibit
The story of Chicago Blues is one of migration and transformation. It is a story of Black Southerners’ search for opportunity amid oppression, of Black musicians experimenting in clubs and studios, and of Blues musicians transforming global music.
All quotes are from Willie Dixon’s autobiography: I am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story. You will soon be able to listen to Alex Dixon, Willie Dixon’s grandson and a Blues musician in his own right, talk about his grandfather on the State of Sound Podcast.
Other upcoming Illinois history highlights:
- July 2, 1888: Construction was completed on the Illinois statehouse.
- August 1, 1843: Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born.
- September 18, 1889: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found Hull House. Read more here.
Jacob K. Friefeld is the ALPLM's Illinois and Midwest Studies research historian.