Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” carries a century of Chicago history from the Great Migration and growth of the Black Metropolis/Bronzeville to current efforts to reinvigorate a community that contributed substantially to national and international music culture.
The Black Metropolis of the 1920s-1930s was a city within a city, confined geographically by segregationist policy while growing through migration and the efforts of black entrepreneurs in banking, real estate, entertainment and leisure enterprise and the Policy Wheel.
The Stroll was the center of Bronzeville jazz and blues. It was said “there was so much music in the air you hold a horn up and it would play itself.” Musicians played in high class venues and off the street rent parties and buffet flats. They drew on southern roots, infused sacred sounds with the blues to create gospel, and sent the sound back to the Delta on records and radio.
The female blues stars of the 1920s were followed by masters of blues guitar and then guitar-piano duos. Robert Johnson would make his name by fusing his Delta roots with the sounds of famous urban musicians. “Sweet Home Chicago” was a masterful reworking and renaming of music that was popular in the Black Metropolis since the 1920s. For a young Delta musician with aspirations, Chicago was the destination. Johnson died in 1938 at age 27 before he could fulfill his promise.
Robert Johnson became a legendary figure as the Delta blues were carried up to Chicago, electrified, internationalized and merged with rock ‘n’ roll. Lawyers fought over ownership of Johnson’s music and estate while others debated who owned his soul. “Sweet Home Chicago” followed its own route, its lyrics reworked to became a Chicago blues standard, the city’s unofficial anthem and one of the most covered songs of all time.
Bronzeville, Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” is in its third incarnation. The city within a city of the 1920-1930s was leveled, sealed off and rebuilt as high rise projects. Bronzeville population plummeted as the projects were torn down and the Great Recession left foreclosed and abandoned properties in its wake. With new investment supporting community renewal, the questions remain who will populate Bronzeville and will it be absorbed into an expanding central city. “Sweet Home Chicago” is a cultural marker in Bronzeville. It is a reminder that a thriving arts and culture district was a core component of Black Metropolis life and can be central to Bronzeville revitalization.