Chicagoans love telling, exploring, disputing and embellishing the city’s history. The story line has been carried by icons of the built environment, milestones in the city’s development, plans for its future, cultural artifacts and Chicago personalities. Music also can carry history. As Irving Berlin said, a song can make history and history can make a song. Chicago’s unofficial anthem, Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” does just that; the song carries nearly a century of the city’s racial and cultural history.
Delta Artifact to Urban Legend
Johnson was born in 1911 just prior to the onset of the Great Migration from the South to Chicago. The city’s black population swelled from 14,271 in 1890 to 233,903 by 1930. While other immigrant groups moved up and out, the black population was confined to a growing but still too compact area mainly on the South Side. Cut off from employment opportunities, new housing, capital and effective equality before law, the black community needed to create itself through a numerical presence, race pride and self sufficiency. Supported by home grown religious and social institutions, some banking, manufacturing and insurance, and significantly, Robert Abbot’s Chicago Defender, the Black Metropolis/Bronzeville emerged within the Black Belt. The locus of cultural and leisure nighttime activity, known as the “Stroll,” added an economic base to this “city within a city.” Black musicians were drawn to the Stroll’s upscale and down home venues, playing for black and white audiences and making Chicago a hub for jazz and blues.
By the time Robert Johnson recorded “Sweet Home Chicago” in 1936 the Black Metropolis was well established as an aspirational destination for those seeking an alternative to an increasingly repressive Mississippi Delta. Johnson had fused the blues styles of the Delta with the urban blues and jazz he heard on records and the radio. Many of his songs, including “Sweet Home Chicago,” were drawn on blues played and recorded in Chicago. An English blues writer said that Johnson’s music placed him at a crossroads in blues history, looking back at the country blues and forward to the Chicago blues of the forties and fifties. But Robert Johnson didn’t live to carry his music to Chicago. He died in 1938 at age 27.
Over the next two decades, in the second wave of the Great Migration, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and their contemporaries brought an electrified Delta blues to Chicago creating a large black and then an international following. As told by The Third Coast author Thomas Dyja, the sound of the blues, magnified by Chess records, was a significant component of Chicago’s defining impact on mid-century American culture.
Robert Johnson’s complete recordings were released beginning in 1961 during the folk and blues revivals and allowed the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton among others to record hits with his music. “Sweet Home Chicago” had been recorded and played on Chicago’s South Side by Delta musicians who traveled and played with Robert Johnson. In that original version Johnson cried that he was going “back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.” By 1981 the Blues Brothers, seeking redemption, were singing a version that had become the Chicago standard with Magic Sam’s lyrics “back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago.”
Somebody will tell me that you need my help someday
In 2014 Salon named “Sweet Home Chicago” one of most covered songs in history. The song carries with it the legend of Robert Johnson, an ever rambling and troubled soul who made a deal with the devil to secure his fame. Over the decades “Sweet Home Chicago,” layered with facts and promotional fictions has become part of Chicago’s cultural DNA.
“Sweet Home Chicago” is celebrated as an anthem of hope and opportunity. It is uniquely rooted in both the Mississippi Delta, where Johnson lived and learned to play the blues, and in Chicago’s Bronzeville, the Black Metropolis mecca where the precursors of “Sweet Home Chicago” were recorded. The song is not about arriving but about yearning for a sweeter place than the Jim Crow south.
In the century since the start of the Great Migration, Bronzeville has gone through multiple incarnations and is again at a crossroads. It is challenged to promote what Black Metropolis authors St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton called the Axis of Life around which individual and community life revolved: Staying Alive, Having a Good Time, Praising God, Getting Ahead, and Advancing the Race.
Bronzeville is now contested ground set between the forces of utopia and dystopia. There are many proposals to reinvigorate the community building on its arts and cultural heritage. “Sweet Home Chicago” is an artifact of that heritage, a marker in Bronzeville recalling African American contributions to local, national and international music culture. Retelling the story of “Sweet Home Chicago” and the Black Metropolis helps to illuminate a history worth preserving and celebrating in a redeveloped Bronzeville.
For Robert Johnson to compose “Sweet Home Chicago” and for the song to serve as a cultural marker, black migrants to Chicago first had to create the Black Metropolis.