by Marty Weil @ChiBluesHistory
On a bitterly cold January night in 1970, Son House left a Rochester bar and passed out drunk in a snowbank. He was found hours later by passersby, but, by then, he had frostbite on both hands. He was hospitalized for several days and eventually recovered well enough to perform again.
Cold weather has bedeviled bluesmen since The Great Migration began in 1920 (lasting until approximately 1970). Based on the number of songs that reference cold weather, especially the wicked brand of chill that northern Illinois can produce, the cold was never far from the minds of many ex-Mississippians living in Sweet Home Chicago. One of the most famous of these songs is “Nine Below Zero” by Sonny Boy Williamson II. The weather so chilled Sonny Boy that he recorded the song twice, once in 1951 and again in 1961. The later version featured red-hot session sidemen, including Otis Spann, Luther Tucker, Willie Dixon, and Fred Below. It’s not by chance that nine below zero became the favorite temperature for a host of musicians, including Bob Dylan who refers to the degree in Bob Dylan’s Outlaw Blues in 1965.
Another frigid number that captured the spirit of Chicago’s freezing cold winters was Muddy Waters’ “Cold Weather Blues.” Muddy provides Chicago weather whiners with some solid-as-ice advice:
Oh, so cold up north that the birds can’t hardly fly
So cold up north that the birds can’t hardly fly
I’m going back south
And let this winter pass on by
Marty Weil is the editor of @CHIBLUESHISTORY on Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer.