Tales from the Rust Belt

Tales from the Rust Belt

A legendary bluesman. A female boxer. To Carlo Rotella, they symbolize urban change

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Although never a commercial success, Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy was acclaimed by fans and musical peers around the world, says Asst. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English). But when Guy moved his legendary South Side club into new downtown digs some years ago, he changed more than his address.

Asst. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English), author of Good With Their Hands (Photo By Lee Pellegrini)
Guy left the storied South Side, regarded by many as the birthplace of the blues, and moved to where the tourists and the dollars were plentiful, Rotella explains. Unlike the die-hard blues aficionados at the old club who were dedicated to the music, the new audience came to hear Guy simply as part of their Chicago experience, and he altered his playing style to suit their tastes.

The relocation of Guy's club, Rotella says, symbolizes an on-going, inevitable process of change that is emblematic of some American cities.

"By following the money," says Rotella, "and then looking at how Guy's style changed - less singing, more guitar - you can tell a whole story about the blues business and Chicago."

Stories about cities, particularly America's postindustrial manufacturing centers like Chicago, are the subject of Rotella's latest book, Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt.

Throughout this collection, Rotella explores how cities, institutions, people and their occupations change one other. In addition to Buddy Guy and the Chicago blues scene, Rotella tells of a female boxer in Erie, Pa., police work and crime stories in New York City, and attempts at urban renewal in Brockton.

"These are things I'd been interested in, and it seemed that they all had their roots in the same history, in the same process," said Rotella. "Cities used to be organized around their factories and the culture of cities were influenced by that. When the factories began to close, urban cultures changed as well."

Rotella will offer excerpts from Good with Their Hands as part of a new Boston College speakers series, "Writers Among Us: Boston College Readings" [see separate story].

A native of Chicago's South Side, Rotella says his research for the book has been going on since he starting listening to the blues as a 13-year-old.
"Anyone can find their way to this stuff, but these are things that had been around me. They soaked in," he said.

Rotella says Good with Their Hands represents something of an experimental style of writing for him.

"I was writing for magazines and doing scholarly work and was trying to find a style that combined the two," he said. "I wanted to see if I could tell these stories, that draw on the forcefulness and excitement of non-fiction writing, without skimping on the argument."

Rotella said he was also motivated by a need to write about characters who could tell the reader "something about how culture gets made."

"All the people I write about in this book have the same problems: how to draw on tradition while still being innovative," he said.

Rotella says that the big manufacturing cities like Chicago, Gary, Ind., and Bethlehem, Pa., were once organized around manual labor performed in factories.

"Factory workers were once called hands, but working with hands is not at the center of American life anymore," said Rotella.

As cities undergo transitions, said Rotella, physical and social layers begin to form which mark the movement of people, the development of ideas and the passage of time. These layers shape cities' architecture, landscape and culture.

"Black southerners who migrated to Chicago in the 1950s cared about Chicago blues in a different way than the tourists who come to seek the roots of rock now," said Rotella. "Both groups are invested in the blues in different ways. So what you get are these layers of meaning.

"Those layers represent an incredible amount of human experience and sweat and ideas and money. They are a kind of biography of the city," said Rotella. "You can see it in the way a landscape is laid out, in how a guitar solo is played, in a well-thrown punch."

In perhaps the starkest example of the shifting tides of urban post-industrial America, Rotella tells the story of boxer Liz McGonigal, a middle-class graduate student in psychology who boxes other middle-class women. McGonigal takes part in an activity that was once strictly male and largely working class, but finds support and sponsorship from the workers on the local General Electric assembly line.

"All kinds of people saw in her a kind of revival of their grandfathers," said Rotella. "A lot of people invested in her their idea of what it means to be from Erie. I found that fascinating."

If industrial work has not been completely overtaken by the information-based economy, Rotella says that it is no longer as prominent in American urban life. Rotella points to the red-brick factory buildings in Watertown, which today house offices containing cubicles, as an example of how two periods overlap.

"There's still plenty of manufacturing, but it's not what it used to be. It's not at the center of city life any more," said Rotella. "You will always be able to find it, you just have to peel back the layers."


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