Music Notes: these magic moments | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Music Notes: these magic moments 

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"God, I can't get enough of these guys!" Gerry Chodkowski sighs and gazes at a video monitor, where a ghostly trio of Chicago blues legends holds forth: Big Walter Horton, perched atop a small amplifier, blows swooping harmonica bends over Floyd Jones's tub-thumping bass lines. Behind them drummer Playboy Venson, cigar jutting rakishly from his lips, crashes away on his battered old trap. The black-and-white images are grainy and spectral, the audio murky. But for Chodkowski, who shot these and many other tapes of local blues artists in the late 70s and early 80s, being the curator of this rare documentary slice of Chicago blues history feels something like being charged with preserving a piece of the true cross.

Chodkowski, who grew up on the northwest side, says he was destined to be an archivist. "My father was a printer," he says. "He used to bring home books, and I took it upon myself to become the librarian. I've been doing that the rest of my life, it seems--sorting and categorizing stuff."

In the late 60s and early 70s Chodkowski began to explore Chicago's burgeoning folk scene. He saw legendary performers like Josh White, made annual pilgrimages to the U. of C. Folk Festival, and haunted the cafes and coffeehouses of Old Town. He traveled to the south side, where blues clubs like Theresa's--and later the Checkerboard--hosted Monday night jams.

In 1975 the club Elsewhere opened on Lincoln Avenue. "I started going there, just as a local place," Chodkowski recalls. "And there's Sunnyland [Slim]! And Jimmy Walker! And Lee Jackson, and Eddie Taylor. Walter. Floyd. Good Rockin' Charles would sometimes come by. One of the bouncers, David Dunning, he was a puppeteer. He created these big papier-mache heads, and they'd pass the ogre around [to collect tips]. It was really a neat atmosphere."

Chodkowski toyed for a few years with the idea of filming there, but film was expensive. "I was working as a Head Start teacher in Hyde Park, and I thought it would be good to use videotape equipment. In 1977, 1978, it was just coming out. I'd put myself through school being a merchant seaman, so I quit teaching, jumped on a boat, and made enough money to get a portable system. It was a reel-to-reel Panasonic deck, half-inch tape. It seemed to me this was the beginning of a whole new age."

Chodkowski has always been staunchly conscientious about his taping. "My whole thing was, this is all being done for nonprofit and any money ever made would go to musicians. I actually sent letters to Eddie [Taylor] and Sunnyland and just about everybody. I think Sunnyland was very skeptical of a lot of people recording. He was always friendly with me, then I sent him the letter and he didn't talk to me. I played pool with him--he let me win for almost the whole game, then he took the last two shots and buried me!"

Horton, who usually refused to allow his photograph to be taken, grudgingly agreed to let Chodkowski tape him playing alongside his longtime musical partner, guitarist Jimmy Rogers. As Chodkowski describes it, "The first song, [Horton] doesn't even look at the camera. Then the second song, he stopped, just as I'm focusing. It's almost like an animal responding to someone putting the sights to them, right at the exact same moment, almost like he felt it!" Chodkowski finally captured Horton for a full set at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted as part of a documentary he and musician and writer Justin O'Brien were making on Floyd Jones.

Some artists were more accommodating. "[Vocalist] Arlean Brown turned out to be kind of my patron saint. She would pay me to do things, to make a tape about herself. One of the most bizarre things that ever happened, she knew she was dying from cancer, we had a benefit for her at the Heartland. Her daughter, maybe her niece--one of her young family members--was singing a song to her, 'When we meet you in heaven.' The tape didn't work--it got eaten up right there, which was kind of spooky." One of Chodkowski's favorite subjects is pianist Erwin Helfer. "Erwin was so influential," he says. "The early work he did, bringing the music to Elsewhere, started a lot of things that might not have happened quite as fast."

Most of Chodkowski's tapes have never been widely seen, but he thinks it's finally time to make them available to the general public. "I believe this is a good time for them to resurface because I think the technology is there to improve them....The original tapes are so ancient that a lot of times they don't transfer; the oxide starts to disintegrate. That's how fragile the tapes are. I'd like to see them transferred to a digital format."

On Friday, March 9, Chodkowski and O'Brien will present "A Video Tribute to Erwin Helfer" at the California Clipper, 1002 N. California. On tap are tapes of Helfer accompanying the venerable vocalist Estelle "Mama" Yancey, backed by legendary drummer S.P. Leary at the U. of C. Folk Festival. He'll also show footage shot at the Piano Man, featuring Helfer along with singers Jeanne Carroll and Queen Sylvia Embry. Helfer's mentor Little Brother Montgomery puts in a nonmusical cameo. The free screening starts at 7:30 and will be followed at 10 by a performance by Helfer and pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, who appear at the bar every Friday. A tribute to Horton, which will include the Jimmy Rogers segment as well as the footage from B.L.U.E.S., is planned for March 30. Call the Clipper at 773-384-2547 for more information on both events.

--David Whiteis

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.


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