Sweet Home Chicago: Billy Branch keeps the city’s blues tradition alive

Billy Branch’s voice–gravelly, melodic, precise–doesn’t seem like it should be used for ordinary speech. The statement “Hi, how ya doin’, come on in” shouldn’t be uttered in such leaden tones. Nor does it seem that a legendary bluesman should be welcoming guests into such a cottage so bourgeois that kids with “Hello Kitty” backpacks run past on the way home from school. One of the “Last Great Blues Harmonica Players” should be living in the perpetual twilight of a dimmed nightclub, smoke permanently swirling around a hand frozen into a cup and a face forever stuck behind four inches of gleaming metal.

Yet here Branch sits, sinking into the depths of a leather sofa in the middle of a tastefully decorated, well-lit house on 84th Street. Little touches betray his profession: he’s dressed in black from his baseball cap to his socks, and the art on the walls ranges from a cubist painting of a harmonica player to one of Branch himself of almost photographic quality. The Grammy nominations on the walls help, too. The more recent nomination was for an album called “Superharps,” recorded with three other harmonica players. In describing the actual event, Branch rises from his seat and begins gesturing expansively with his arms. “When I was in the ceremony, I had this crazy delusion that I might win; they flash your name up on the big screen, you know, you get excited. Then they said BB King, and I thought ‘What the hell am I thinking, I must be on dope.’” That’s an anecdote which deserves to be said in a voice used to growling into a microphone. Branch has a catalog of similar events, betraying a familiarity with old hangouts and famous names: “The Rolling Stones came to play at the old Checkerboard [Lounge] on 43rd Street. I remember vividly that night, that I knew they were there but I opted to stay at Theresa’s Lounge [a club on 48th Street]; I didn’t want to fight the crowds. My bass player was there and ended up sitting in with them.”

The bass player was part of the band Branch has been managing for a few decades, the Sons of Blues. The Chicago Blues Festival this summer will hold a thirtieth anniversary celebration of the group, which has served as a kind of vanguard for the traditional Chicago-style blues. “We were formed in 1977 as the answer to the question, ‘Are there any young black musicians playing the blues?’” says Branch, his rehearsed cadence indicating how many times he’s told this origin story. “We were recruited by Jim O’Neal, who is the editor and founder of Living Blues magazine. In the beginning everyone in our band, except for myself, was the son of a famous blues musician. I kept the band intact over the years, although the personnel changed many times. But throughout the history of the band we had some of the finest players of our generation pass through. At the Blues Festival it will be like a reunion of past players and the current band.”

It will be an eclectic group on that Blues Festival stage, and not just for the diversity of instrumental talents. Two of the band’s current members, Aryio on piano and Minoru Maroyama on guitar, are Japanese, which reflects the disparate popularity of the blues outside the US as compared to within it. Overseas, “the audiences tend to be more knowledgeable, and there’s a great deal more respect internationally. I’ll go on a tour in Europe, Asia, even South America and someone will come up with every recording I’ve ever done, y’know, stuff on vinyl. They study and research. In Europe sometimes we’re playing in concert halls and opera houses, places where they’d never dream to put the blues in the States. Unfortunately.” When considering how this sad state of affairs came to be, Branch rises like some vengeful Blues Spirit and starts waving his arms erratically. “People here have never been properly educated, they’re ignorant en masse. The blues is rarely played, you rarely see authentic blues players on television. It’s not very accessible; in Japan there’ll be a billboard with my picture on it. I’ll be lucky to get a poster with my picture on it, here in Chicago.”

Branch hasn’t just been lamenting the state of the blues in the US; he’s also been trying to fix it. For the past twenty-nine years, he’s put on the “Blues in Schools” program in partnership with various other organizations. Varying from one to three weeks, the program tries to develop an appreciation of the blues through playing and teaching. Branch has instituted the program all over the world, from Seattle to Haiti. From clips of an old news broadcast done on a program in South Carolina, it’s obvious Branch cares deeply about what he’s doing: with an intense disciplined look on his face (and slightly more hair than he has now), Branch instructs a group of kids on the influences of a blues musician their parents have never heard of. It’s obvious he still cares about the kids he’s taught; every few seconds, it seems, he points to the screen excitedly and says, “Oh, that little guy, I’m still in touch with him. He’s now a teacher.” Branch rattles off stories about the programs he’s organized, and the kids he’s helped, as energetically as he lists anecdotes about famous musicians: “In the South, kids are so well behaved. In the Bible Belt, they have good voices. In Helena, Arkansas, especially, I did a program there and they had just beautiful voices … most of these kids come from at-risk environments and homes. I remember two kids came to the program every day, one of them had tried to burn down the principal’s office, and another threatened to murder his mother. We try and do a little to help turn these kids’ lives around.”

The Blues in Schools program isn’t the full extent of Branch’s community involvement. Plaques and certificates of gratitude line his living room for playing at various benefits and charities. Branch has been, and continues to be, a pillar of music and musical education for people all over the world. Living in a quiet community, with shrieking kids running past, fits his style nicely. Although he probably wishes at least one of those kids wore a Muddy Waters backpack.

Written by Ben Oren