Singin' the blues with Alligator Records

Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, in his office.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: And finally as we wrap up our week in Chicago, we couldn't leave without a nod to one of this city's greatest cultural contributions: The blues, and what that music might say about our subject of job loss. So we made a pilgrimage to Alligator Records, an independent recording label that's released more than 250 blues and blues/rock albums, from such legends as Koko Taylor, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. We caught up with the label's founder in the midst of a busy week.

Phone beep

Bruce Iglauer: Sean, I've got my phone on "do not disturb." For the next few minutes, I'm going to do this interview, so try to be quiet.

Vigeland: Bruce Iglauer, so nice to be chat with you. Thanks for inviting us into your office here.

Iglauer: I'm glad to have you. Thanks.

Vigeland: Now, we asked you to send us some blues songs in preparation for this conversation. And I'd like to start with a Chicago native, John Brim and his song "Tough Times."

John Brim, singing:I'm broke and disgustin' and in misery. Can't find a part-time job, nothing in my house to eat. Tough times...

Vigeland: So there you go, right there. You don't have a job. It was pretty common to be out of work in the 40s, 50s and 60s, especially if you were a black man in America. This song is a reflection of that?

Iglauer: This was actually recorded in 1953, which was one of the many recessions we had during the 1950s. And yeah, a lot of black people in Chicago, and of course, elsewhere, were working hard labor jobs, some of them for cash, which would mean no benefits, no unemployment. So when the economy got tight, jobs got lost and people were scared.

Vigeland: And that's something fairly easy to make music out of, isn't it? Misery?

Iglauer: You know, the blues isn't all about misery. The blues is really designed to help you get through your misery. They say in Chicago, you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues.

Vigeland: Now there were obviously a lot of prominent women blues singers and musicians. I think this is one that a lot of folks have heard of, Bessie Smith recorded this song, "Nobody knows you when you're down and out" in the 1920s.

Bessie Smith, singing:In my pocket, not one penny. And my friends, I haven't any...

Vigeland: So she's talking there about "in my pocket, one penny." That's tough.

Iglauer: You know, a lot of blues artists really still live kind of day-to-day and week-to-week. You know, playing for cash, living in rental places, because they can't get credit to buy a house. Being a blues artist is a hard life, but it's also something you do to avoid being unemployed. Unemployment in the black community is a huge problem, obviously much bigger than in the white community, and it continues.

Vigeland: Was it something that musicians talked about outside of the music that they were making?

Iglauer: In the black community, amongst the musicians and amongst the fans, unemployment was so common that it wasn't always talked about. But you know, everybody had a hustle, everybody had a way of putting cash in their pocket. In fact, there's another song that we picked for this show from the early 50s, T-Bone Walker's "The Hustle is on," which is exactly about that subject.

Vigeland: Let's take a listen to that.

T-Bone Walker, singing:Yes, time is hard, baby. And hustlin' is really on. Prices are high, darlin', all the good jobs are gone.

Vigeland: Well, that's an awfully upbeat job loss song, unemployment song.

Iglauer: Well, you're going to have to dance your unemployment away.

Vigeland: I want to ask you how this is playing out now. Obviously, blues artists must be watching and experiencing what's going on in our economy right now. What are they singing about?

Iglauer: When President Obama was elected to office, there was a great deal of excitement. But when the economy kept turning sour, there've been artists who have been complaining very clearly about that subject and feeling like many of us that maybe some of the government help should be going not just to banks, but to the average working man or working woman. So, Guitar Shorty recently cut a song on exactly that subject.

Guitar Shorty, singing: Please, Mr. President, lay some stimulus on me, 'cause I'm just a workin' man trying to feed my family.

Vigeland: Wow, yeah, he's really asking for his own financial bail out there and speaking to the president from right here in this city.

Iglauer: Yeah, and I think he's feeling the president oughta be listening.

Vigeland: Bruce Iglauer is the president and founder of Alligator Records, the for 40-year-old, Chicago-based independent blues record label. It's been awfully fun having a chat with you. Thanks so much.

Iglauer: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Vigeland: Curious how Alligator Records got its name? Head to Marketplace.org for the back story. And while you're there don't miss our video of Chicagoans telling us their dream jobs. Nobody wanted to be Oprah!

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