The Compassionate Blues


Where does the nation’s heart still beat? Once upon a time, the thump-thump of compassion was not hard to hear. The footsteps of those who marched for justice and equal rights generated a powerful rhythm that was audible around the country.

Today that beat is a little softer, but the echoes can still be heard among the abandoned buildings, vacant lots and potholed streets of Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods. The nation’s heart was beating loudly the other night at Lee’s Unleaded Blues. Located at 75th Street and South South Chicago Avenue (the double south to indicate the direction of ‘South Chicago Avenue’), Lee’s is among the last of the city’s ‘juke joints.’ Seven nights a week, Lee’s hosts authentic Blues acts for a largely African American crowd. Everyone is welcome at Lee’s, though, and on many nights, you can see working class people along with college students and even a few downtown types. In a city infamous for its segregation and racial tension, Lee’s is a rare haven for those who long for a truly multicultural place to have a good time.

Thursday, Dec. 16, was a special night at Lee’s. Some 100 people gathered in the club for “Beauty Turner Appreciation Night.” Beauty has been Residents’ Journal’s assistant editor for several years now and has conducted award-winning journalism as well as groundbreaking research. She also writes for other publications around town.

Many of Beauty’s journalistic colleagues came to honor her that night, as did those who know Beauty for the activist work she did before coming to work here. Veterans of the struggle to secure civil rights were shoulder-to-shoulder with hard-core revolutionaries, opponents of police brutality and Beauty’s family members. Beauty sat at Lee’s front table, admirers on all sides and with a constant stream of people coming up to pay their respects.

She was serenaded by the host of the evening, Clarence “Little Scottie” Scott, a blues musician, licensed evangelist and civil rights activist. Dressed in a fashionable, lemon yellow suit and matching hat, Scott sang, the band played, and no one escaped without having a good time.

Scott sang his recent hit, “Hot Dog,” a raunchy number in which he asks a woman to “take off your wig so I can play with your bald head,” among other lyrics. Scott announced, with equal parts humor and frustration, that he would be running for mayor under a “Poor Peoples Campaign.” The festivities lasted well into the night.

Scott, 59, said he came up with the idea of an appreciation night for Beauty because of her decades of service to the community.

“I like Beauty because she reminds me of Harriet Tubman,” Scott told me during a phone interview. “She is a strong lady in the movement and she isn’t scared.”

Coming from Scott, that is no small tribute. Scott is himself a longtime activist who has risked his life many times. In his native city of Florence, South Carolina, during the late ‘50s, he was firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. It took him 3 ½ years in the hospital to recover from those injuries, though he still bears the scars.

He spent many of the following years marching with Martin Luther King Jr. During those turbulent years, he started accumulating a collection of political buttons. Everywhere he went, Scott gathered little metallic disks featuring candidates and causes he supported.

After King was assassinated, Scott continued his nationwide activism, his blues and his button collecting. He became a fixture at the political events and protest rallies. Eventually, after numerous requests from the public, he began designing and selling his own, unique buttons.

The blues and the movement have both faded from public view. Juke joints like Lee’s have disappeared around the country, and the leaders of the movement have “sold out to the dollar,” Scott said. He settled in Chicago because it is one of the few cities in the country where the beat of the blues continues.

“Chicago is a thriving town – a town a person can sink their roots in and make a living,” Scott explained.

“You might not get rich, but you can work.”

Playing music is becoming more important to Scott these days. His second wife was murdered less than one year ago, and he is suffering from numerous health problems.

“Now I’m getting older and I can’t march as much any more,” he explained. “Now I’m trying to make my music my ministry.”

Little Scotty believes that the nation’s heart has grown weak and cold with disuse. In his lifetime, he has watched the general abandonment of once-teeming inner cities, the withering of government services for single mothers with young children, and the growth of a blood-thirsty foreign policy.

The demolition of the city’s public housing developments is just the latest symptom of a national heart that is clogged and a national body that has grown obese and sedentary. After decades of social manipulation that wrecked the residents’ family structures, inadequate and corrupt police practices, and an evaporating low-skill job market, Scott wasn’t surprised.

“Anywhere you have a lot of people stacked on top of each other, you’re going to have problems,” he reasoned.

“But those people were not savages. They were human beings. They could have been shown how to live.”

Little Scotty believes that the nation and the planet have lost much as the protest marchers of yesterday have traded their dungarees, rubber-soled shoes and a life on the road for pinstripes, fancy heels and comfortable offices.

To Little Scotty and others who are still fighting for justice and equal rights, those one-time civil rights leaders have let the nation’s sense of compassion atrophy. Recognizing the work of Beauty Turner was Little Scotty’s way of demonstrating that there is beauty everywhere, even and especially in the poorest neighborhoods of the country. Little Scotty reminds all of us that a country, like a human being, cannot survive without a healthy heart.

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