Dolins doesn’t have the blues after 27 years

By HermineBloom

Barry Dolins recalls selling sun shades on historic Maxwell Street as a wide-eyed teenager in the early 1960s. He would listen to the soulful riffs of the Mississippi steel guitar alongside blues musicians such as Johnnie Johnson, who he said used to plug his stereo into a rusty, almost cartoonish-looking “blues bus”—the customary place to buy cheap blues tapes in that era.

An immersion in traditional blues culture at an early age spurred Dolin’s genuine curiosity about the genre, which eventually led to his serving 27 years as the deputy director of the internationally renowned Chicago Blues Festival, held annually in Grant Park. This year, however, marked Dolins’ last year coordinating the festival. That, paired with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events cutting the schedule back to three days from four in 2009, could have put a damper on a festival that once hosted Ray Charles, B.B. King and Buddy Guy, to name a few. While performers and attendees alike didn’t seem too fazed by the festival’s recent cutbacks, it’s apparent that Dolin’s absence at next year’s festival won’t go unnoticed.

“I’ve been in public service and education for 40 years and I’ve been around the blues community for almost 50 years and certainly that has enabled me to have a particular point of view and specific opinion of what the blues tradition and heritage means to Chicago,” Dolins said of his contribution to the festival.

His decision to retire was not influenced by the city, Dolins said. He added that he’s unsure if anyone else will hold the formal position at next year’s festival.

“There’s a sense of relief certainly and I’m looking forward to retirement and catching my breath and looking toward the next chapter,” Dolins said. “But there might be a long hiatus between chapters.”

While attending DePaul University for graduate school, he wrote his masters thesis on house party pianos and underground music in Chicago from 1913 through 1927. Dolins went on to teach a class at Loyola University called Chicago Blues and the Urban Experience, then helped his brother develop and maintain Sirens Records, ultimately having “a little bit to do with everything that had to do with the blues industry,” he said.

Billy Branch, a member of the Sons of Blues, which features musicians who are the sons of famous blues artists, is also a Grammy award-nominated blues harmonica player. Branch appeared at this year’s festival with the Chicago Blues Living History act.

Branch’s wife, 58-year-old Rosa Enrico, said she has a deep admiration for traditional blues music and has been attending the festival for about 10 years.

With regard to the city’s budgetary issues resulting in replacing stars with local acts, she said, “This is the Chicago Blues Festival. I think most of the performers should be Chicago blues acts.”

This year’s festival, which remains the largest blues festival in the world, was dedicated to Howlin’ Wolf on the centennial of his birthday. Many of the blues musicians who played the festival paid special tribute to Wolf, also known as Chester Burnett, on five different stages.

The retirement of Barry Dolins has Enrico both sad and hopeful, as Dolins has personally sponsored the Branchs’ Blues in Schools program for the past 25 years, which teaches children about the roots of modern music.

“We’re going to really miss him. I was getting teary-eyed the other day when I saw him,” Enrico said. “He’s to be commended for his commitment to the local acts and this genre.”

Festival attendee Leslie Keros said, though she thought Dolins should have received more of a send-off than he did, the new coordinator might be able to reinvigorate the festival.

“Barry knows the scene thoroughly and has a whole lot of contacts,” Keros, 45, said. “It may not be a bad thing to let someone else take a crack at it. This might be an opportunity to get some new blood in there and draw on some fresh contacts. Maybe it will bring some new funding ideas to the festival as well.”

What’s in store for the Chicago Blues Festival after Dolins’ retirement is uncertain, though he’s confident that the festival won’t suffer as a result.

“I’ve been here in this office for 27 years and there have been a number of talented programmers here almost as long and I’ve hopefully been able to instill some of the important aspects of festival production to them,” Dolins said.