The Role of the Blue River Cafe in the Development of Fingerstyle Guitar in Southeast Wisconsin

Samuel Kirby, “The Role of the Blue River Cafe in the Development of Fingerstyle Guitar in Southeast Wisconsin”
Mentor: John Stropes, Music

From 1974-82, the Blue River Cafe, an acoustic music club in downtown Milwaukee, presented national touring acts and provided a stage for regional musicians to develop their craft. It provided centrality for the acoustic music scene in Milwaukee. This research project explores the history and musical landscape of this venue and documents the performers and their music. Fingerstyle guitar is a type of playing which focuses on performing guitar pieces by plucking strings directly with the fingertips rather than with a pick. In the 1960s, a revitalization of the folk music genre infiltrated coffeehouses in North America and provided emerging figures such as Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk with a platform for career development. In the 1970s, in clubs like the Blue River Cafe, performers such as Dave Van Ronk John Fahey, Peter Lang, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotten and many others continued to find currency. With contrasting styles, these individuals popularized fingerstyle guitar in the Midwest. This project utilizes a documentary-style video featuring interviews from former club owner Gary Lukitsch and frequent performer Peter Lang. Incorporation of materials from the cafe such as menus, calendars, press, contracts, and performance photos convey the nuances that allowed this destination to thrive. This research examines the role of the Blue River Cafe in the development of musical culture in southeast Wisconsin, and places this research in the context of earlier research on William C. Stahl (1869-1940), the Avant Garde Coffeehouse (1962-1968), and the 1969 and 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festivals. The presentation will conclude with a performance and analysis of Van Ronk’s fingerstyle arrangement of “Green, Green Rocky Road.”


  1. Samuel,
    Watching this video was the highlight of my week. Thank you for your incredible research on this historical and musical gem of a place. Your use of primary material – interviews, recordings, newspaper clippings, photographs, etc. is exceptional. We are only able to see the cafe in a few old photos – but the descriptions provided by your research and the interviews and the music brings the venue to life. Much of this is also because of your excellent film skills. I could imagine what it would be like to sit there and listen to a musician play his or her guitar – and enjoy a fresh chocolate chip cookie! This is important research and important work. The performance at the end was stirring and a fitting way to end the video. Well done. UWM is fortunate to have you as a student. I wish you well. Kathryn Amato

  2. Samuel,

    This was a visually appealing, piece with a good overview. Your visual representation included a great variety of music, graphics, interviews, and narration. Your speech and tone were clear. Your research was strong with many great interviews and historical pieces of information. Nice work!

    My only criticism is that you may have too much and it could benefit from narrowing. I did at times have trouble grasping on to a main idea or story. I was trying to figure out how everything connected or what the central purpose of your research was. I might recommend that you narrow the content down to help your readers find meaning. I recognize that you might find joy and meaning in all of this :). Thus, instead of cutting pieces out, you may find that you have enough content to make 2 to 3 presentations with separate foci.

    Also, I think your performance was great at the end. Though, I’m not sure how this connected to the research. I might recommend cutting this out too or reducing it so that it is at the end when you share references.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.