Toronzo Cannon is an internationally recognized Chicago bluesman. For more than 25 years, he’s also been a bus driver for the CTA. In September 2019, he released his second album for Alligator Records, The Preacher, the Politician or the Pimp.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
Facebook has a way of making you feel good and making you feel bad, because you see memories of what you did in the past. Last year today I was at the mayor’s office to get a certificate to bring to Aomori, Japan, to kind of make us “blues sister cities.” For 17 years, the Japan Blues Festival in Aomori has hired exclusively Chicago blues musicians. And I thought maybe we could get some kind of certificate or something to make a splash out of playing there. So we went to City Hall and met Mayor Lightfoot, and she gave me and Nora Jean Wallace a certificate to take to Japan.
While I’m on the west side, driving the bus through economically deprived neighborhoods that are fresh from the uprising or whatever, stores are not open yet; our ridership is not like it used to be because downtown is still closed. Things are not in the groove yet. There’s no schoolkids. So I’m sitting reminiscing about last year. I went to probably four or five countries before June of last year, and now I wonder, “Wow, will I ever get a chance to do that again?”
Millennium Park at Home: Blues Music featuring Ivy Ford, Toronzo Cannon & the Chicago Way, and host Tom Marker
Night three of the livestreamed festival Blues Music in the Key of Chicago, presented by DCASE and WXRT. Sun 8/2, 6-8 PM, youtube.com/user/ChicagoCultureEvents/featured.
I never took it for granted, but you miss it when you don’t have it. It’s just a little depressing, but I’m glad to have a job. I’m glad to be, I guess, an essential worker—I didn’t know I was an essential worker until they said you have to keep coming to work, you know?
Our routes normally last about three months, but with the whole pandemic and the shutdown, this particular route lasted six months—which is unheard of. If there’s a lady who takes the bus every day at 5:45 in the morning, I’m going to look down the street for her. Or she might tell me she’s not coming to work tomorrow because she has a vacation day so I don’t have to look for her. Those people all of a sudden disappeared, because either they can work from home or their job didn’t require them to come in anymore. So for about a month, I was on the bus by myself for most of the day. And all the while I’m reminiscing about things I’ve done musically that were, in my mind, great achievements.
As musicians, I think a lot of us have lost our momentum. That’s been my objective: to not lose my momentum with the music, and find some way to be out there, doing livestreams or Instagram stuff or just putting a song out to let people know I’m still here. All of us have been put on pause, where we’re forced to go sit down and think about our lives, because things can be taken away just like that. It forces you to say, “OK, I need a helluva plan B,” because this can always happen again. We have to sit and think about what we’ve done, what we want to do, and what we don’t, which could be a good thing. You have to reinvent yourself.
I try not to write songs about the pandemic. I don’t want to hear songs about COVID-19. You can use metaphors or find some kind of slick way to write about the heaviness of what’s going on in society. But I wouldn’t want my next CD to be a whole CD of COVID-19 songs, you know? My last CD came out in September. It takes about four or five months for a CD to actually gain momentum. And then in the summertime, you tour on it. So just when I was getting ready to do the major gigs to promote the CD, the pandemic came.
My first CD for Alligator Records [The Chicago Way] did so well that I ate off of it for three years. The festivals would call, and we’d hit a bunch of different countries and cities. But March 13 was my last gig. It was at FitzGerald’s, and everybody was freaking out because we’re thinking they’re gonna close the city down. I was thanking everyone for coming out, but I was like, “I don’t want to touch anything.” They had hand sanitizer at the front door. People didn’t want to shake hands. It was only about a week before the shelter-in-place order.
I always do well at that particular venue, and it was still kind of OK. Things were weird—not scary, but weird, where you think, “We have to get used to this.” With fans you can usually take a picture, or with your friends you do the brotherly hug, the chest bump, or whatever. Now, if you cough, that’s like a gunshot—everybody ducks for cover.
- Toronzo Cannon performs “The Chicago Way” live on WGN in September 2019.
The online stuff is what it is, but it’s hard to look into the camera sometime and not get that energy from the crowd. I’m very in the moment when it comes to music. I might see a pair of red shoes in the audience, and I might say something about them and put the attention on the person wearing them, and that might go into my next song. So it’s a different kind of stage, because there’s nobody to play off of.
I’m trying not to be humdrum about it, but it makes for good songs. There has to be a silver lining somewhere too. It can’t just be about being paused and how you felt in every song, because that contributes to some kind of depression or spirit of “Oh my God, woe is me, the world is coming to an end.” So I still manage to write some funny songs. Songs that might take your mind off of the situation, or songs about relationships, written in the weird way that I see them.
What are the scenarios when we’re in a situation where we’re in the house together for 14 days? There are things that you might go through with your lover or something, the funny things—leaving the toilet seat up, or underarm hair, or things like, “I didn’t know that you did that before quarantine.” So it’s a funny take on the 14 days of quarantine without talking about the elephant in the room. As my grandma would say, “Laugh to keep from crying.” v