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Cal-Sag bike tour showcases Chicago’s blues heritage


While Steve Buchtel was stopping to listen to blues tunes at the Restvale Cemetery in Alsip with a group of about 20 cyclists, a field officer approached him to find out what was going on.

It was undoubtedly an unusual sight, and Buchtel was not surprised by the employee’s arrival.

“Suddenly here all these cyclists are standing around one of the burial sites while the Harmonica Neil is wailing on her harp,” he said.

Rather than kicking the group out, the site manager began to mention other people who had visited the final resting places of some of the cemetery’s prominent patrons.

“When the Rolling Stones were playing in Chicago, he always said a limo would stop at Restvale and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger would get out of the car and walk to Muddy Waters’ tombstone just to pay their respects.

“The irony is that most people in the Chicago Southern District are unaware of the treasures still there, ready for a graveyard visit. But the Rolling Stones do it.”

Homewood’s Buchtel has been doing his best to change that for almost 10 years and leads the annual Cal-Sag Graveyard Blues Tour. The 9th bike tour will begin at 10:30 am on September 9, departing from the Rock Island Public House on Blue Island.

a fundraising event for Cal-Sag Path BuddiesThe tour offers the chance to pay tribute to the many men and women who brought their musical traditions from the rural Southern to a wider audience in Chicago, and in the process laid the foundations for rock ‘n’ roll music.

Three cemeteries, in particular, house the remains of an overabundance of blues icons. In Restvale, the monument to Muddy Waters sits alongside monuments to blues musicians such as Magic Sam Maghett and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Lincoln Cemetery on Blue Island houses Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy Reed, among others. Willie Dixon’s grave at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip is not far from the graves of “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington and Otis Spann.

Historically, three African-American cemeteries were established at the height of the Jim Crow era, according to information compiled by its President, Linda Swisher. Southern Suburbs Genealogy and Historical Society At Hazel Crest. While the city’s Black population increased during the Great Migration, extreme discrimination in Chicago wasn’t limited to residents.

“It has become a tradition to go to the suburbs to be buried,” Buchtel said. These included not only famous blues musicians, but also people from all walks of life, such as poet Gwendolyn Brooks, aviator Bessie Coleman, baseball legend Rube Foster, and basketball pioneer Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Burr Oak is also a resting point. Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till.

This legacy is evident in the suburbs, but the concentration of blues artists buried on properties along the Cal-Sag Canal has made the Graveyard Blues Tour a natural fit for a band that has worked for years to create a bike path along the canal.

Buchtel said there are consistent stops on the annual tour, but organizers are trying to explore some unexpected corners of blues history between events.

“There isn’t enough time to reach everyone,” he said. “Of course you will see the Muddy Waters; you can’t miss it. But it’s really cool to use these characters in turns and give people a broader perspective on that music and where it’s coming from.”

Harmonica Neil performs at Big Bill Broonzy's grave at Lincoln Cemetery on Blue Island during the previous Graveyard Blues Tour hosted by Friends of the Cal-Sag Trail.

Harmonica NailThe blues historian and performer, whose off-stage name is Neil Florek, is on hand each year to add context, tell stories from musicians’ pasts, and present graveside performances of his songs.

Some of their stories illustrate the “noisy” nature of life on the South Side blues circuit.

“Hound Dog Taylor literally shot bandmate Brewer Phillips and could have been tried and convicted had he not died before legal action was taken,” he said. “The details are sketchy, but it seems that before Phillips died, they made it to Hound Dog’s hospital bed and made up.”

Having the advantage of learning from and playing with Blues master Jimmy Johnson, a Harvey resident who died late last year, Florek said his earliest memory is of seeing Muddy Waters perform at Navy Pier in the early 1980s. Now a professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, she will reprise her role as Harmonica Neil once again on this year’s tour.

“For me, nothing is more satisfying than conveying a little knowledge and appreciation of a great African-American art form that has its roots in Chicago and the Calumet area for at least 100 years,” he said.

Related folklore is still being produced in the 21st century.

“When we’re at Big Bill Broonzy’s grave, I like to remind people that the Reverend (Joseph) Lowery was talking about Broonzy’s original song.Black, Brown and White“During the consecration ceremony at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009,” Florek said.

Burial sites, including Willie Dixon's, will be included on the Cal-Sag Trail Graveyard Blues Bike Tour, which will visit three historic cemeteries.

Buchtel said that while the tour was generally upbeat and fun, the history presented could be “mind-opening.”

“At its core, it’s about re-raising these artists in people’s imaginations and connecting this place to the larger story of Chicago’s place in music history, especially the blues,” he said.

An integral part of that is “the story of the Black experience in Chicago and why these tombs are here on Blue Island and Alsip.”

Graves are not immediately apparent. Muddy Waters, perhaps the most recognizable name of the genre worldwide, was “buried under a small, unpretentious stone,” Buchtel said.

“You can’t stand in Restvale and show them where the blues artists are,” he said. “They look like hundreds of other stones out there. They are not the most prominent so far.”

This physical context reveals the nature of blues music, the emotions that come together to form an art form.

Florek said standing by Waters’ humble headstone helps one “understand that blues people are real, historically situated individuals whose artistic achievements and worldwide influence are not easily won.”

The unmistakable geographical parallelism between famous cemeteries and the Cal-Sag cycle path is accompanied by philosophical similarities.

Started in the early 2000s by a group of Palos Heights residents who wanted to easily connect pedestrians on the south side of Cal-Sag to the new Metra station on the north side of the waterway, this effort turned into a dedicated pedestrian advocacy. Route that will connect the I&M Canal road system in Lemont to the Burnham Greenway system near the Indiana state line via Palos Heights, Crestwood, Alsip, Blue Island, Dolton, and Riverdale.

“This isn’t just a recreational trail, it’s also something tied to the community history and heritage of the area and the economic development of the area,” Buchtel said.

“A corridor that creates a common space. When you are on the road, there are other people who use the same road for the same reason as you. This creates a sense of community and personal security.”

And at least once a year, it’s a route that acts as a sort of time machine to the time when the blues were created by the original masters of the genre. It connects an art form celebrated and loved all over the world to our little piece.

“Perhaps we can’t be blamed for taking some pride in the fact that the physical, industrial and cultural environment of Chicago and its southern suburbs is enough for these blues people to create, perform and make their mark on the world,” Florek said. .

The 9th annual Cal-Sag Cemetery Blues Bike Tour will take place on September 9 from 10:30am to 3:00pm, starting and ending at Rock Island Public House, 13328 Old Western Ave., Blue Island. Information at: www.calsagtrail.org/calendar/graveyardblues23.

Landmarks is Paul Eisenberg’s weekly column exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. He can be reached at: peisenberg@tribpub.com.


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