Billed as the World’s Largest Free music festival, the 30th Annual Chicago Blues Fest begins another three-day run in Grant Park on Friday, June 7.
The theme of this year’s festival is “Rolling Up the River,” in recognition of the great northern migration to Chicago. This cultural phenomenon saw countless African-Americans traveling to “the promised land” with many bringing their Delta blues with them. Like the migrants, the music underwent a transformation once it came to the big city as blues music became more electrified, urbanized and easily recognized all around the world.
As in previous years, the Chicago Blues festival will attract both international visitors as well as locals looking for a good time and three full days of free music. During the day they roam around all the venues including the Front Porch, Crossroads and Mississippi Juke Joint stages. But at night, it’s all about the big stage—officially known as the Petrillo Music Shell. That’s where blues fan gather around the perimeters, and grab any available piece of real estate as they prepare to take in the ambiance, architecture and the evening’s headliners.
In keeping with the “Rolling Up the River” theme, the headline acts will follow the natural progression of the Mississippi River with New Orleans’ brand music on Friday followed by the Memphis sounds on Saturday night. Chicago’s very own musical luminaries will close out the festival on Sunday night.
And while there’s sure to be a fair share of “Sweet Home Chicago” sung during the course of the weekend, one of Sunday night’s performers is singing a different tune as she sadly reflects on the passing of so many bluesmen and women as well as the fact that the genre is often taken for granted by the city that spawned it.
Local blues singer Deitra Farr will join James Cotton, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lil Ed, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater and others on the big stage on Sunday night. And while her blues career began right around the same time as the festival’s inception, she worries about the state of Chicago blues and frets that the music isn’t evolving or getting the respect it deserves from the city of its birth.
Farr’s career has certainly come full circle, as she grew up steeped in the soul of the seventies. She noted that “Al Green got me through high school” and she started her career as a soul singer in 1975. She made the switch from soul to blues after meeting a Guy—the late Phil Guy.
Farr relates that she was working the front desk at the University of Chicago where Guy and his band had a gig. She was dared to go “up there and sing” and the feisty Farr obliged. Soon she had joined Guy in making the round of the many blues clubs that were flourishing at the time including the Checkerboard Lounge, Biddy Mulligan’s, Wise Fools, and more. After graduating from Columbia College, Farr embarked on a full-time career singing the blues.
Needless to say, many of the clubs that had a nice run in the eighties, are no more. Nowadays, Farr spends much of her time touring in Europe. She grudgingly admits that her overseas audiences are “absolutely more appreciative.” Farr, like many others, also bemoans that lack of a blues museum in the city that made the music famous. She said, “This town does not care enough about blues” and added that the many Chicago-based gospel musicians are also getting short shrift.
While Farr believes that Chicago-based blues and gospel music has not gotten its due, it’s also obvious that she still relishes her time on stage. Sure, many of the classic old clubs have fallen by the wayside, but Farr loves the vibe of the relatively new room at Buddy Guy’s Legends. She cites the acoustics and ambiance, but it’s also apparent that she loves to connect with her audience and looks forward to playing to the diverse audience sure to be perched in the park.
You can meet up with over 500,000 of your closest friends in Grant Park at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, beginning on Friday, June 7. The City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events will also be rolling out the red carpet with a special Thursday night show in the Millennium Park. This free show will feature 14-year old blues virtuoso Quinn Sullivan along with Shemekia Coleman. Get more information and the complete lineup at