The Chicago Blues Sound of the Maxwell Street Market

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In recognition of Black History Month, the IDHH would like to highlight the vibrant history of the black musicians of the historic Maxwell Street Market, the birthplace of Chicago blues. Between 1916 and 1970, six million African Americans moved from the rural Southern United States to the more urban Northeast, Midwest, and West in the Great Migration. Bringing new life to industrial cities like Chicago, one of the many areas in which these new Chicagoans landed was that of Maxwell Street, part of the Near West Side of the city. A bustling residential district, Maxwell Street first appeared on a city map in 1847 and over the next 75 years would become an increasingly diverse neighborhood, earning itself the nickname “Ellis Island of the Midwest”. By the 1920s, the area’s residents were predominantly African American, and these new migrants brought with them the sound of blues music. 

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Maxwell Street became known as a place where black musicians could be heard by the greatest number of people as shoppers browsed the wares in the open-air market or inside stores. These street musicians played the acoustic blues of the South, but soon realized that amplification was needed so that they could be heard above the din of the noisy market. Setting up near storefronts, they began to play a blues music using electric guitar and the harmonica, both heavily amplified, often to the point of distortion. Over several decades, the featuring of these instruments and the blending of musical genres gave birth to an electrified, industrial blues, later coined, “Chicago Blues.” Made famous by black musicians on Maxwell Street such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley, Chicago blues would find mass appeal through Chicago blues record labels like Chess Records and have a significant influence on early rock musicians like The Rolling Stones. 

Here are a few of our favorite items from IDHH collections featuring the music of the famous Maxwell Street Market:

Maxwell Street Market. August 1915. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Aerial view of the Maxwell Street Market. July 1945. Photographed by Americo Grasso. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Jazz with junk. 1959. Photographed by Clarence W. Hines. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Magic show on Maxwell street near Newberry Street. Man pointing in forground. 1966. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
African American man in straw boater hat on Peoria Street, east of Maxwell Street. 1966. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Gospel musicians near Maxwell Street. circa 1971. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Woman in white playing the tambourine, on Peoria Street east of Maxwell Street. n.d. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Want to see more?

Visit the IDHH to view even more images of the Maxwell Street Market and explore items related to African American history and culture.

Celebrating Black History

The IDHH celebrates Black History Month with collections remembering African American cultural heritage,communities, and Black-owned businesses in Illinois. We highlight two collections, the McLean County Historical Society’s Bloomington-Normal Black History Project and Elgin Community College’s Elgin Community College History collection.

The Elgin Community College History collection includes images from Elgin-area Black History Month celebrations often involving prominent figures in African American history and culture. In particular, Tuskegee Airman Andrew Lane met with Larkin High School students for Black History Month in 1994.

The McLean County Historical Society’s collection chronicles African American communities and notable residents as well as Black-owned businesses in the Bloomington-Normal area from the turn of the 20th century through the 1990s. Featured below are, clockwise, beginning in the top right, photos of Ike and Lue Anna Brown Sanders’ Working Men’s Club, Harry Bell’s Tailor Shop, Robert Gaston’s Upper Cut Barbershop and Richard Bell’s amusement park.

See all items in the IDHH relating to Black History Month.