junker’s blues

In my last column I reviewed the History Channel’s show about junking, American Pickers. My reaction to the program and its hosts veered from indifference to hostile irritation. However, I acknowledged that maybe I just didn’t like spending TV-watching time looking at people do my job, and suggested curious viewers take my review with a grain of salt. 

This week I’d like to talk about Mike Shea’s 1964 documentary And This is Free, the greatest film about the junking culture I’ve ever seen. It not only shows how people shopping for junk can be utterly spellbinding, but that flea markets can be as important and vital as any other aspect of American culture.

The film was shot over several Sundays in Chicago’s Maxwell Street district, a half-mile of shops, tables, piles of junk, street performers, preachers, pitchmen, food and shoppers. Maxwell Street was untouched by the Great Chicago Fire, and a number of city-bound immigrants sought shelter there after the city burned. The area developed into an unofficial market during the last part of the 19th century, and in 1912, the city named Maxwell Street its official open-air marketplace. For the next 80 years, all kinds of deals went down.

And This is Free
is “told” through a series of transactions, be they commercial, social or personal. It’s filmed without any sort of narration or interaction with its characters — there are no onscreen interviews or title cards to give you any sense of bearings, and the camera is rarely on one subject for longer than a couple of minutes. You’re thrown into the crazy-quilt of commerce and chaos and forced to make sense of it for yourself. The film looks and, in particular, sounds amazingly great for live street footage from 1964. You can really get a feel for the music and overlapping conversations going on on the streets.

While the film is probably best known for its street performances, I was immediately taken in with the commerce. What was surprising to me wasn’t the exotic nature of the stuff being sold, but how recognizable and familiar everything seemed. Anyone who has spent any time at a flea market will recognize some very familiar sights and characters — the guy selling socks, the tables piled with rhyme-and-reason-less stuff, the rusty stacks of tools and piping laid out on a blanket in the middle of the street. For one glorious moment there’s even shots of shoppers plowing through boxes of 45s. 

Not that the musical performances aren’t astounding. By 1964 the market had mutated from its original Jewish roots into a much more ethnically diverse stew, and the filmmakers initially set out to document the blues music that was being played on the street. The half-dozen blues and gospel numbers, by Robert Nighthawk, Fannie Brewer and others, that are included in the movie are some of the freest and most unstage-y performances I’ve ever seen on film. Particularly show stopping is gospel singer Carrie Robinson’s dancing on “Power to Live Right,” which is so energetic and spiritually charged that it sends one on-looker into such a frenzy that she starts smashing herself into a parked car. 

Of course, there’s the exotic and odd as well – where else are you going to see a salesman indifferently tootling away on “the World’s Smallest Saxaphone” or an old white bearded dude in a top hat take shots of vodka and “hypnotize” a rooster until he’s chased away by a policeman?

But, really, the similarities to the flea market culture I know and love kept coming back to me. As someone who has listened to merchants and customers at Smiley’s grumble about how it’s nowhere near as good as it used to be for over a decade now (heck, as someone who has started grumbling about that himself for the last few years) it is fascinating to listen to people gripe about how Maxwell Street is “basically over” and not as good as was, in 1964! It is also interesting, but less amusing, to hear them grumble that “certain types of people” have changed the flea market for the worse, another complaint you can hear on any given weekend at any given flea market.

Perhaps those dealers and long-timers were really reading the writing on the wall, because even in 1964 the market’s days were numbered.
      For footage of Maxwell Street in decline but still alive, the curious are directed to Terry Zwigoff’s 1985 documentary Louie Bluie, which has finally been released on DVD after years of languishing out-of-print. You can definitely feel the nearly exhausted energy from the market in the scenes where the film’s subject, blues man Howard Armstrong, chats with aging snake-oil merchants about the street’s former glory days. By the 90s the city shut the market down, which is not surprising. It is almost impossible to imagine that such a major city as Chicago would cede so much of its real estate to its people on a weekly basis in the 21st Century. 

What And This is Free shows is that we are usually at our most human when we are entering into some sort of transaction, and that those transactions are most satisfying and edifying when they are conducted one-to-one. While Maxwell Street may no longer be doing business, you can find some of its energy at any flea market in America. Granted, it’s doubtful the music will be as good.

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2 thoughts on “junker’s blues

  1. lance

    In the 1990s the Maxwell St Market was moved to expand the nearby University of Illinois Circle Campus, despite a public outcry. One could accurately make the argument that “it’s not the same” but it is, technically, still in operation.

  2. Barry Summers

    I loved going to Maxwell St. during the late 80’s when I was in school in Chicago. It was surreal – a huge spread of food, music, flea market etc. in the middle of a burned-out economically depressed area. I remember watching full blues bands set up on a pile of rubble where a building used to be, running off extension cords half-a-block long… And folks from all walks of Chicago came there, and there was a sense that this is what city life was supposed to be like.

    I never went to the re-located Maxwell St. – I’m sure it’s not anything like what it was.

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