When Jim Brewer played on Maxwell Street on Sunday mornings, he looked like blues history come to life. Grizzled and blind, hunched over his guitar or autoharp in the early morning sun with an ancient hat jammed down over his forehead, he seemed a throwback to the days when every southern town had its street singer, and itinerant musicians still rode the rails from farm to farm on payday, singing for hard-earned change and hustling jobs at barbecues and Saturday-night fish fries. Not even the electronic drum machine he insisted on using in his later years could destroy the aura of living tradition he projected.
It was no illusion. Brewer was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 1920 and was blinded by illness before he was ten. Both his parents played music; his father was a blues player and his mother sang regularly in church. They encouraged him to become a musician to support himself–there was little else that a blind black boy in Mississippi could do in those days–and so Jim took to the streets of Brookhaven and began to play the blues, gospel, and folk standards he’d learned from his parents and from records around the house.
Times were hard, and few families could afford to be generous. A young boy, even a blind one, was expected to go out, make his way in the world, and not put a strain on the family finances. Brewer left home early and scuffled throughout the south in the 1930s, riding freights and sleeping in barns while making a living playing music on the small-town streets and at private parties. It was the classic hard life of the itinerant musician, made harder by his blindness.
Although he returned occasionally to Brookhaven, he maintained his independence; before he was out of his 20s he’d traveled through much of the south.
Brewer accompanied his family to Chicago in 1940, and inevitably found his way to Maxwell Street, the hub of the city’s street music activity. He continued to play steadily there and at other neighborhood venues in Chicago, occasionally venturing as far as Saint Louis, but remaining an integral and largely unheralded facet of the Chicago music scene until the early 1960s.
After over a third of a century as a professional musician, Jim Brewer was “discovered,” as the saying goes, on Maxwell Street in 1962 by two white college students. The folk boom was on, and Brewer was the kind of musician the young enthusiasts had read about and dreamt of, but seldom seen. Within weeks, he was booked for a blues concert at Northwestern University and was soon performing at the No Exit Cafe. An entire new phase of his career had begun. The No Exit became the base of his north-side operations for over 20 years. Before long he was performing regularly at festivals and coffeehouses across the U.S. and in Canada, while still appearing on Maxwell Street every Sunday he was in town.
It was easy to understand Brewer’s appeal: he was a witty, garrulous entertainer whose ribald sense of humor, personal warmth, and soft-spoken eloquence allowed him to establish intimate rapport with an audience. “Take it easy, greasy!” he’d chuckle to his guitar, in a voice alternately gritty and tender, after a particularly deft solo. Then he’d plunge into anything from the traditional “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” to one of his own compositions like “Too Fat Boogie,” a riotous tale of a big, beautiful girlfriend he’d once had in Saint Louis. He always asserted proudly his preference for heavyset women and his ability to give them all the love they needed: “Don’t worry; Daddy ain’t gonna let nothing go to waste!”
Beneath the flamboyance, however, Jim Brewer was a complex, thoughtful man. Gentle and kindly, he was deeply concerned with questions of mortality; he talked often of his fear of physical injury and death. Perhaps losing his sight before the age of ten made him feel especially vulnerable in the world; maybe his difficult struggles as a street singer in the deep south in the 1930s, and later in Saint Louis and Chicago, left him wary and somewhat fearful. Whatever the reason, he always took extra precautions to stay out of harm’s way.
Thus, his steadfast refusal to travel by plane, aside from his one European tour, even when other overseas jobs were offered him: “I’d rather see a man with no head walk toward me than fly!” Likewise, he refused to play blues on Maxwell Street during his later years, because he feared the crowd he thought the blues would attract. No reassurance or promise of financial gain could change his mind.
In concerts and on record, though, Brewer let his deep blues feeling and versatility shine. He was a “songster,” encompassing over half a century of black folk tradition and caring little for artificial distinctions among different kinds of music. His answer to those who criticized his eclecticism was a lesson to which many of today’s purists should listen: No one was ever hurt by a song.
Jim Brewer died in his sleep on Tuesday, June 3. Along with David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Homesick James, he was among the last of the seminal generation of acoustic guitarists who lived and played in the rich folk tradition that was the progenitor of Chicago blues and, through it, most of what passes for popular music today. His manager Michael Frank and some other old friends are working hard to see to it that Brewer isn’t forced to carry on in another, less honored, blues tradition. They do not want Jim to lie in an unmarked grave.
On Saturday, July 23, Homesick James will team up with Andy Cohen, one of Brewer’s longtime admirers and friends, at Sokol Hall, 3907 Prairie Avenue in Brookfield, in a benefit to raise money for a tombstone, and to help defray the expenses of Brewer’s funeral. It is also intended to give honor to a man who is remembered as a seminal figure in Chicago’s music history, as well as a beloved and cherished friend. For further information, call Sokol Hall at 485-9663.