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Chicago, 1964

June 2024
1min read

AND THIS IS FREE The Legendary Slice-of-Life Film from the Streets of Chicago

directed by Mike Shea , Shanachie Entertainment, SO minutes, $19.95. CODE: SHA-4

THE FILMMAKER MIKE SHEA BROUGHT his hand-held movie camera to Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market for six months of Sundays in 1964. The street was famous as a weekend gathering place for gospel and blues singers and for people hawking gyroscopes, car treatments, old furniture, and easy credit. Shea’s camera weaved through the vendors, street players, and Beatles-era college kids as in a childhood fantasy about city life. The musicians in his film are all very good, and the whole place seems appealingly seedy but good-natured and endlessly surprising. On one corner a gospel duo sings “Need More Power”; on another a man has somehow gathered a crowd around to see his medicine for corns. The voices of old merchants, some lamenting how great it once was, provide the only narration over the camera’s tour through the market. “These colored pitchmen,” says an older vendor of the new era’s hucksters, “they’re a pleasure to watch.”

All over the market Shea’s camera finds evidence of the cultural collision—rural South meets urban North—that produced the Chicago blues in the forties and fifties. At the end of this short, beautifully understated film, the street market comes down as if for the last time. Stuff is borne away on dollies and in baby carriages throughout the long dismantling as the blind guitarist Jim Brewer plays his spiritual standard, “I’ll Fly Away.” The market’s real end on Maxwell Street didn’t come until twenty years after Shea made his inspired, black-and-white tribute. But one of Shea’s old merchants says, “This street served its purpose years ago, when everyone was a greenhorn. But no more greenhorns.”

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