Mike Shea's 1964 hour-long film of a typical Sunday afternoon on Chicago's Maxwell Street is a feast for both the ears and eyes. It serves double duty as both a documentary of the comings and goings at this open-air market and as a blues and gospel documentary, gathering rare and informal performances full of deep feeling and commitment to the moment. Candid and raw, it captures the flavor of the gritty urban landscape that nurtured Chicago blues and grew out of a creative collaboration between Shea and his friend, blues guitarist and enthusiast Michael Bloomfield. As Shea was swept up by the images he saw, the initial plan to film older blues singers who were still active grew into a desire to capture the vitality of the area. Shot with a hand-held camera in the cinema verite style of D.A. Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, the film crew spent every weekend on Maxwell Street over a six-month period. For the uninitiated, this will seem like a flea market with music, but it is so much more than merely that.
Much of this amazing footage is of the blues and gospel musicians who competed for crowd interest with the amplified preachers, slick-talking con artists and vendors, one of whom is hawking socks (at "eight pair for a buck") while one of them is doing sleight of hand with a quick patter to total a bunch of free goods that comes to $1.50 (hence the film's title). Robert Nighthawk -- the legendary bottleneck guitarist who taught both Muddy Waters and Earl Hooker -- plays "Murderin' Blues," an old Dr. Clayton piece in a marvelous sequence featuring himself, John Lee Granderson on rhythm, and Robert Whitehead on drums set up underneath a flight of steps in a back alley surrounded by a wildly dancing crowd. Johnny Young also appears in a brief clip (sadly, none of the musical performances are presented in full-length versions), while within a few blocks, White street evangelists gather to preach, testify and sing about Jesus. Blind guitarist Jim Brewer backs up Carrie Robinson on a jubilant gospel tune (aided by several others) and then plays his signature song, "I'll Fly Away." Set up on a corner are two blind gospel singers, playing their guitars and singing with a throaty reverence. One of the longtime fixtures of the market was street singer Blind Arvella Gray, who walks through the crowd eliciting tips from passersby as he sings "Baby Please Don't Go" and plays bottleneck guitar on a metal-bodied National. Along with the various shysters, con men and vendors vying with the droves of bargain hunters for the best deal, these blues and gospel singers were a vital part of a typical Sunday on Maxwell Street. Mike Shea managed to capture it all in this 1964 portrait of the street, documenting a slice of life that has all but vanished from America's culture.