Art Works Blog

Spotlight on the Illinois Central Blues Club

The MojoCats perform at Blue Monday. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Central Blues Club

The Midwest has always been a hotbed for the blues. Kansas City. Chicago. St. Louis. But Springfield, Illinois? It’s not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of musical meccas. And yet the Illinois Central Blues Club (ICBC) has spent 25 years working to preserve and strengthen local blues culture. Founded in 1986, the ICBC sponsors festivals and live performances, and its Blue Mondays have taken place weekly since the organization began. ICBC also runs Blues in Schools, a program that donates recordings and books to area schools, and provides free concerts for local schoolchildren. We spoke via e-mail with ICBC President Mark Edmiston, who told us about the influence of the blues, how they reflect Springfield's own culture, and the importance of music education.

NEA: Why was the Illinois Central Blues Club originally founded?

MARK EDMISTON: The Illinois Central Blues Club was conceived in the summer of 1985 for the purpose of preserving and promoting blues music culture and sponsoring live blues performances.

NEA: How did you first become involved in the organization? Had you always had an interest in the blues?

EDMISTON: I have always had an interest in music, and from an early age liked the British blues-influenced music. My father and mother always had music playing in the house. I have been involved with the Blues Club for about 15 years. My first involvement was attending Blue Mondays, and I then expressed an interest in helping plan events, and serving on the board.

NEA: What are some of the programs that the ICBC puts on?

EDMISTON: The ICBC fulfills its mission by sponsoring live performances of blues music, promoting public education and an appreciation of blues music as a cultural art form. The ICBC offers educational opportunities through musicians, Blues in the Schools events, and music workshops. Since 1986, ICBC has sponsored more than 1,766 live performances and educational events whose culturally diverse audiences number more than 140,500 attendees [cumulatively]. The ICBC Blue Monday jam sessions have hosted more than 4,700 musicians and are currently the city’s longest running weekly music tradition. Through this work, the ICBC reaches an audience that is as ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse as [the audience of] any arts group in Central Illinois.

NEA: Why Illinois Central instead of Central Illinois?

EDMISTON: The Illinois Central part of our name came from the railroad. The Illinois Central was officially chartered by the Illinois General Assembly on February 10, 1851, after Senator Stephen Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln---both Illinois Central men---lobbied for it. In 1867, the Illinois Central extended its track into Iowa. Throughout the 1870s, and 1880s, the IC acquired and expanded railroads throughout the southern United States. IC lines crisscrossed the state of Mississippi and went as far as New Orleans, Louisiana to the south and Louisville, Kentucky in the east. It was the main pipeline for black southern blues musicians migrating from the south to Chicago.

NEA: What is it about the blues that you think people find so appealing?

EDMISTON: Current blues music has great appeal to a generation that enjoyed seeing live rock-n-roll shows. Live blues performances provide an opportunity for those individuals to see live music that is reminiscent of the music they grew up with. Many rock-n-roll songs have their roots in blues. For example, Eric Clapton used many of Robert Johnson’s songs created in the 1920s.

NEA: How do the blues and its history reflect Springfield and its own history and culture?

EDMISTON: The Springfield music scene has always involved blues music. It wasn’t until 1985 that a group was organized to explore the creation of a club for those who wanted to support live music. Springfield is a perfect stop-off for touring bands looking for a gig between bookings in St. Louis and Chicago, or bookings between Indianapolis and Kansas City.

NEA: What’s one thing you think we can do to get younger generations interested in the blues?

EDMISTON: Our Blues in the School/Community (BITS) brings blues music and history to the younger generation. If you allow [children] to enjoy the music at a young age, they will remember the experience and hopefully embrace it when they are older. We know this to be true from those that benefited from the BITS programs conducted in the 1990s.

NEA: Why do you think we as a society need music, and the blues specifically?

EDMISTON: We as a society need music to add enjoyment to our lives, to find solace when we are desperate, to find happiness when we are sad, and to allow us to express ourselves. The blues are specifically important because they speak often to the human spirit. The blues' roots in the African-American community, which used the music to escape the reality of its situation, is still true today. However, today the blues are for all to use as a form of expression.

Add new comment