Ruthie Foster, the Blues, and a Town That Needs Lifting
Park Forest, Illinois, 2019. Photo by Sarah Masciotra
“Blues is like a witness,” Ruthie Foster said with a delicate voice while warming her throat with a cup of tea in a conference room of the Freedom Hall in Park Forest, Illinois. Beyond the way that a masterful blues guitarist bends a lick, or a great singer lets out a soulful shout, Foster argues that “blues is a testimony about what you’ve been through and what you’re going through.” It is the hospitable tradition to which she most returns, even after enjoying musical vacations in other genres, because she often “needs a way to testify about what I’m going through.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, prominent philosopher and social critic Cornel West entreated America: “When you have the blues you need to listen to your blues people.” Since that horrific Tuesday morning, the American people have suffered through middle class liquidation, two wars, the revival of racial hatred in mainstream political debate, the election of a would-be tyrant to the presidency, and countless mass shootings. Park Forest, a small town 35 miles south of Chicago, is no stranger to pain, and far from immune from the perilous transformations of American life. My wife’s hometown, it was the idyllic picture of postwar, middle class stability and family-focused community. A once-thriving downtown now offers only the eyesores of boarded windows and broken glass. Without a grocery store and with only one gas station, the town has seen property values plummet even as taxes have risen. Park Forest typifies how poverty and crime have made the commute from the inner city into the suburbs, bringing along with them a series of social ills that residents would have found unimaginable just 20 years ago.
On March 8, an audience gathered in Park Forest to listen to a blues person. Ruthie Foster, a seven-time recipient of the Koko Taylor Award for Female Blues Performer of the Year and a three-time Grammy nominee, is a singer-songwriter of rare power and poise. A blues and gospel singer at her artistic core, she can also elevate audiences out of the seats, and nearly off their feet, when playing her original compositions in the soul, reggae, or folk genres, or when covering anyone from Curtis Mayfield to Black Sabbath.
Ralph Ellison defined the blues as “a chronicle of pain expressed lyrically.” When I interviewed Foster, there was a drop of sadness in her voice, especially when we discussed the recent death of her drummer and friend Samantha Banks. “Samantha was my rock. Everything we did was based around her rhythm,” Foster said before complimenting the dynamism of Banks’ replacement, Brannen Temple, who formerly played with Bonnie Raitt, Alejandro Escovedo, and Robben Ford.
Anyone who has watched Foster perform can attest to both her willingness and ability to emote through the delivery of song. When I asked how she would bring her emotions to the stage in the wake of Banks’ death, she admitted to not having much time “to process the full weight of the loss,” but offered, “I have nights when it is heavy to get through this music, but I put everything in there — all my emotions and feeling. And I hope you feel it too.”
It was impossible not to feel the knockout punch of Foster’s performance later that night. In the small theater of 300, she led her band through a 90-minute set that explored and mapped the tumultuous terrain of human emotion. Foster and her band locked into a groove and took flight with their third song, a Sam Cooke-style reimagining of Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor.” Keyboardist Scottie Miller played an organ straight out of a Baptist church, and the rhythm section, featuring the funky and jazzy bass of Larry Fulcher, found the perfect pocket for Foster to use as a launching pad, her voice stretching higher and higher as she transformed Williams’ meditation on love won and lost into a spiritual sacrament.
The joy in Foster’s own “Smalltown Blues” combined the swing of a country dance with the fervor of gospel vocals, serving as a reminder of Albert Murray’s insight that blues is not only an expression of pain, but a means of overcoming the pain. As often as it is tear-soaked, blues is also fun. The show-closing rendition of Foster’s 1992 fan favorite, “Death Came A-Knockin’,” dramatized the relationship between the blues and gospel — the dichotomy between hell on earth and hope for heavenly relief — with irresistible avidity. Following each band member taking a solo, Foster turned her advice to the audience — “celebrate waking up” — into a soulful sing-along before running through the chorus of Sly and Family Stone’s, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” The song moved with ease through blues, funk, jazz, and gospel, showing shades of Mahalia Jackson and Prince to offer a joyful affirmation of life even under the haunting of death.
“We need to get back to the basics,” Foster said when we talked before the show; her declaration offering tutelage to a country currently experiencing signs of a fracture that threatens to leave it politically and socially debilitated. When I asked her to specify what she meant by the “basics,” Foster said, “The basics of emotional expression. Too much of our culture is getting away from that. Blues, gospel, soul singers — when they express themselves, when they testify — they bleed on stage. That’s not always pretty. So people don’t want to see that.”
It was as if Ruthie Foster summoned all of the diversity of her experience into a cohesive expression in Park Forest. Far from the scrubbed-clean aesthetic of pop culture that she rightfully rebukes, Foster was able to touch the highs and lows of human life. She told me stories of picking tomatoes in the fields when she was a teenager, singing gospel and blues songs with her family, who worked alongside her. She described watching her uncle break down in tears during a solo vocal performance in their church service. She remembered how after her mother’s death, because she missed making visits to the nursing home, she organized her own “nursing home tour” in which she would perform for the residents and patients at lunch time. She recalled learning how to appreciate hard rock when she was in the Navy and her fellow sailors insisted that she listen to AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. She smiled as she described brushing her daughter’s hair while they sing Mahalia Jackson and Yolanda Adams songs.
Her performance was a forceful reminder of the power accessible at the circuitry where real experience meets authentic expression. It is difficult to articulate it with precision, but one can easily imagine all of the stories and memories Foster told found their way into the notes and melodies of her music.
Foster’s show was also a reminder of how many human ideals, most especially unity, are easier to achieve in art than in politics. The audience in Park Forest was racially mixed — black and white people sang, danced, cheered, and celebrated together as one of their favorite musicians gave a tour of the most elemental musical traditions of their country. It was a snapshot of what Park Forest aspired to accomplish, and for a brief period did, but ultimately could not sustain against the pressures of its region and nation.
A planned, postwar community, Park Forest often serves as a case study for sociologists and urban planners seeking to understand the possibilities of peaceful racial integration. In that midcentury era, most Chicago suburbs brazenly discriminated against blacks who attempted to buy homes, start businesses, or even rent apartments in their cities. Martin Luther King Jr., while leading the Chicago Freedom Movement for open housing in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, said that he had never — not even in the Deep South — experienced such racial hatred and hostility as he did when he marched through Chicago. A second march, planned for nearby Cicero, was cancelled, in part due to escalating fears of violence. One of King’s most famous and effective aides, Jesse Jackson, created Operation PUSH in Chicago following King’s assassination. The original purpose of PUSH was to integrate the economy of Chicago and the suburbs, where most employers refused to hire black workers, banks denied loans to qualified black applicants, and trade unions refused to admit black laborers. For his effort, Ebony nicknamed Jackson the “apostle of economics.”
The city government of Park Forest from the 1950s through the ’70s worked alongside an influential Unitarian church and private commissions to try to set their town apart from the racism and discord that surrounded it. They took measures to diversify neighborhoods to ensure that housing complexes would have white and black residents, rather than establishing proverbial “separate sides of the tracks.” The police acted on orders to protect black homeowners from racial threats and harassment, and the chief of police even made house calls to white families to explain that racial diversity does not equate to high crime rates or lower property values, as white paranoia often insists. Old posters advertising lectures from Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks in the Freedom Hall show that the cultural centers of Park Forest acted in the interest of racial equality and harmony, bringing in speakers who advocated for progressive politics and unity.
For decades, the plan was largely effective. Middle-class black and white families lived in the same neighborhoods without crisis or disaster. Now, Park Forest families are mostly low income, crime rates continue to increase, and the downtown is full of empty storefronts. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet had his first writing job as a sports reporter for the Park Forest Star, a newspaper that no longer exists. Class and race, always connected in America, joined forces to give Park Forest its first shove into the decline it has suffered, unabated, for decades.
Park Forest began as a community for educated professionals, and when they moved to newly developed suburbs with larger homes, more modern amenities, and what sociologists call the aesthetic of the “rural idyllic,” the town became more reliant on blue-collar workers. The devastation of the manufacturing economy quickly made Park Forest residents poorer, and in the 1990s, many middle-class white families began to leave. The white flight of the Chicago suburbs in the 1990s was so severe that The New York Times ran several reports on it, speculating that it was one of the worst on record, and it sparked a vicious economic cycle seen countless times across America. White residents leave, causing property values to decline because of oversaturation of the market, and then white buyers who hold bigoted biases against black homeowners, associating their presence with urban decay, refuse to even consider moving to the town.
When Ruthie Foster asked my wife how to describe the changes that have taken place in her hometown, she answered with one word: “sad.”
Foster’s performance, especially given the history of its setting, felt exactly like a blues and gospel ritual, offering spiritual relief and sustenance. During our interview, she said that she believes music can help bring people together. While that is true, it is also true that art alone cannot solve the problems of race and class division that currently traumatize the American spirit. Towns like Park Forest exist in every state. The insight of Cornel West about listening to the blues people, animated by performers like Ruthie Foster, demonstrates that what music does have the power to achieve is enabling people to look at political and personal problems with honesty and hope.
In the middle of her set, Foster gave a stunning a cappella rendition of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face.” Following her muscular treatment of a song about overcoming cruelty and withstanding ridicule, she announced to an applauding audience: “That feels like release. That feels like freedom.”
David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).