Sociologist David Grazian became interested in urban blues clubs soon after arriving here to pursue his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1995. New in town and needing a break from academia, Grazian was drawn out of Hyde Park to the north side by the “nighttime distractions” of clubs like B.L.U.E.S. and Kingston Mines. But even there he couldn’t entirely escape his studies.

Intrigued by issues of authenticity and cultural consumption, he noticed something odd about his fellow patrons. Many of them–especially the tourists–didn’t seem particularly interested in the music. “They come expecting to have an authentic Chicago experience,” he says. “They go to a steak house, they go to a Bulls game, they have their stuffed pizza, and then they go to a blues club.” The experience, he came to believe, is often more important than the music itself.

“I realized that a lot of the things I was interested in–music, the production of music, race relations, social interaction–were going on in these clubs,” Grazian says. “I thought this was a place where I could learn something about the human animal.”

To that end, he spent hundreds of evenings as an undercover lounge lizard, picking the brains of Chicago blues club patrons, bartenders, and musicians, then returning home after last call to transcribe his notes, some of them scrawled on cocktail napkins. He even played his saxophone at jam sessions, overcoming his stage fright to get some perspective on the scene from a musician’s point of view. The year of drinking in the name of social science paid off: he wrote his dissertation on the subject and his new book, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs, is due out next week from the University of Chicago Press.

According to Grazian, people seek out things that appear uncommercial in response to the “hypercommercialized logocentric branding of everyday life.” In blues clubs, patrons look for the same freedom from the marketplace as that commonly associated with punk rock and independent cinema. The irony, of course, is that authenticity sells–a dynamic understood both by local officials, who heavily promote the city as a mecca for the authentic blues experience, and by clubs such as B.L.U.E.S., which Grazian describes as looking like a “dingy, down-home tavern colonized by an airport gift shop.”

His research took him from established north-side bars to legendary south-side dives like the Checkerboard Lounge, downtown name clubs like Buddy Guy’s Legends, and young upstarts like Wicker Park’s Smoke Daddy. He says he came to realize that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. For example, while tourists at B.L.U.E.S. (the site of much of his research) may feel cheated if they don’t get to hear “Sweet Home Chicago,” many musicians have grown to hate the damn song. Authenticity can be, writes Grazian, “a fantasy to fulfill, a way of life to protect, or a burden to overcome.”

Race adds a critical dimension to the mix. White patrons, he says, feel their experience is more authentic when the band and other patrons are black; white blues musicians, on the other hand, often get discouraged because, no matter how accomplished they may be, they’re not readily accepted by white patrons. Black fans, for their part, tend to patronize the more integrated downtown and south-side clubs rather than those on the north side. “It’s not that I found that black audience members don’t like watching blues with white audience members,” he says. “It’s that so many white audience members behave so badly.”

At the Checkerboard, for example, Grazian found a good number of white people–specifically “drunk white college students”–behaving badly. “The problem was,” he says, “that very well-intentioned members wanted to relate to the black musicians on the stage and black patrons in the club, but because their ideas of authenticity were very much rooted in stereotypical notions of what black people ought to be like, as opposed to the way in which all people are, it prevented them from seeing their fellow black patrons and musicians as human beings.”

The release of Blue Chicago is timed to coincide with this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, which starts May 29, and while Grazian concedes that the festival “gives access–introduces this music to thousands of people who ordinarily wouldn’t get a chance to hear it,” he is not without reservations. “It is so unbelievably commercial,” he says, “in part because of the extraordinary presence of corporate sponsors. The city relies on its local culture to bring tourists downtown, but while it’s bringing so many people into the downtown area…it also creates a world where the street performers get edged out. I have a memory of this old-timer singing the blues and playing his acoustic guitar, and it was a wonderful performance. But it was difficult to hear him because so many people around him were talking, enjoying the day as if they were at a barbecue or a picnic.”

Grazian, who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, will be in town promoting his book for the next two weeks. At some point during the blues fest, he says, he plans to take a break and head to B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted, with his sax in hand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael T. Regan.