NEAR WEST SIDE — Musician Toronzo Cannon had dreadlocks and was into reggae — until visiting the “Blues Bus” on Maxwell Street.
Back then in the mid-’90s, Maxwell Street was home to street vendors and blues men, who often played outside the market on the weekends while shoppers negotiated for everything from tube socks to hubcaps.
Cannon said he was invited on the bus by its owner, Rev. John Johnson, who sold blues tapes and CDs from it for four decades near Maxwell and Halsted Streets. The bus, which had its seats removed, was a rolling music store filled with the music of blues greats, many of whom started their careers on Maxwell Street. It operated in the area from the 1960s to the late 1990s.
“He was encouraging,” Cannon said. “He gave me a CD of Luther Allison’s album, ‘Where You Been?’ He said, ‘I want you to take this home. I want you to study.’ It was kind of like in the movies, the older dude giving the younger dude some jewels.”
Cannon went on to play the blues himself, joining Delmark Records and then Alligator Records, two labels Allison played on.
Although most people who bought blues music from Johnson’s bus didn’t go on to become world-renowned bluesmen like Cannon, it was the way many were introduced to blues music. The Maxwell Street market, old storefronts and market are long gone. But now there is an effort to restore the bus, which, over the years, fell into disrepair and was vandalized.
The move to revive the bus and create a permanent blues exhibit is being led by Steve Balkin, a professor emeritus at Roosevelt University who also is in charge of the Maxwell Street Foundation. Balkin is well known in blues circles as the man who led the charge to save Maxwell Street, which he refers to as the “Ellis Island of Chicago” because of the number of immigrants it attracted.
While Balkin was not successful in that campaign, he’s hoping his new focus to restore the Blues Bus results in victory.
Balkin said Johnson, who is 83 and living in Arkansas, gave the Maxwell Street Foundation the bus in hopes it will be used for educational purposes. He wants it to be used to teach new generations about the blues and Maxwell Street, the site where many believe Delta blues was electrified and would later evolve into rock ’n’ roll.
The bus is in a field in Crete, Illinois, and in need of $10,000-$15,000 in restoration work, Balkin said.
Balkin said he has already approached the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Museum of Science and Industry with plans for the bus and a possible blues exhibit, but he was turned down. His plan now is to reach out to the state of Illinois, which controls the old Pullman Factory building on the Far South Side, in hopes they will agree to house the bus and create a permanent blues exhibit.
“There are several links between Pullman and Maxwell Street,” Balkin said. “Pullman Porters, who were Black, traveled all over the United States, working on the trains. And one of the things that they did when they got to towns was tell people about the music in Chicago.
“They would often bring blues records from Chicago and bring them to stores that didn’t have much exposure to black music, so they helped to disseminate blues and jazz around the country, which is what Maxwell Street did, as well. There were also important labor events at Pullman and in the Maxwell Street area.”
Balkin envisions a permanent blues exhibit inside the Pullman factory, alongside a replica of Jim’s Original polish sausage stand which was housed at the corner of Halsted and Maxwell Streets for decades, and a Maxwell Street-style market on the grounds on weekends.
“Those things would give a lot of vitality and improvement in the neighborhood,” Balkin said.
Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s historian emeritus, said the bus is a vital relic from an era long gone. He would love to see it saved, but said it will be a challenge.
“Certainly a big artifact like the bus is a great thing, but it is a big thing,” Samuelson said. “Finding a place where it can be safe and protected and resources to restore it will be a challenge. What I had always hoped for is that there would be a permanent blues museum in Chicago. It would be the perfect place to put it.”
Balkin said that once a place to store the bus is found, his group will likely begin a crowdfunding campaign. For now, people who want to support the effort can make a donation to the Maxwell Street Foundation online.
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