Uptown in the mid-1970s was a port of entry for people coming to Chicago from the South and Appalachia. I found these strummers just west of the El on Wilson. They were playing Dueling Banjos from the movie Deliverance, but with a guitar and a banjo instead of two banjos. They were almost as good as the pickers in the movie. There’s another image of these two in this portfolio from a slightly different angle that shows the Wilson Club Hotel for Men, Goodwill, a day labor agency and two more bars in the background – one of them the Wooden Nickel. The Wooden Nickel catered to the country crowd; it often booked guitar and banjo performers like these two.
This image shows some other shops on the same block, including yet another bar where people could drink up the money they made from mind-numbing, back-breaking labor each day. Also shown: check-cashing and discount stores. Note how their car is parked in the bus stop.
According to the grandson of the banjo player who contacted me after reading Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s, the banjo man was a 4th or 5th generation coal miner from West Virginia. He and his wife roamed neighboring states looking for work while his oldest daughter took care of 10 other children. The banjo man played on streets, often with his buddies, and occasionally in clubs like the Wooden Nickel.
He loved singing and playing the old “back-woods, up-in-the-mountains country.” He died in the late 90s of Black Lung Disease. Many of his children are still in Chicago. Some moved to the burbs and out of state.
The grandson continued, “I have to tell you. I’ve always looked at Uptown with pride. It’s where I grew up. The neighborhood may have been unpredictable and looked down on by others, but it was my home. At ten I got my first job delivering The Chicago Today and The Daily News. Goldblatt’s was the store we went to on payday. Toppers was the tops. Woolworth was the place to go for an excellent sundae. My first bank account was at the Uptown National Bank and my first real job (age 16 in 1978) was at The Uptown Theater.” Ah, the memories!