The corner of St. Aubin and Frederick in east Detroit is a well-manicured patch of land amid streets where tall, unruly weeds grow in the places homes used to be. The corner is called John's Carpet House, but there is no home there, either. The only carpet is a small, stained piece next to a portable toilet. And John died five years ago.
But every Sunday from May to October, John's Carpet House becomes vivid testimony Detroit still burns with raw creativity. From 3 p.m. to sunset, a live jam takes place featuring Detroit's blues royalty, who perform for as many as 500 people. There's no real advertising, no seats except the lawn chairs people bring, and no cover. It's so grassroots it feels like it happens of its own accord, but Albert "Big Pete" Barrow, a retired auto worker and deejay, keeps a tight rein on things.
Artists such as Harmonica Shah, Howard Glazer and Kenny Miller show up and wait their turn to play on the patch of carpet, their instruments powered by a generator. "We can play Europe, we can play in big festivals, but, in Detroit, this is where it's at," says Glazer.
Many here know the story of John's Carpet House. John Estes was a junk man and drummer and sometimes singer who lived across the street. Twenty years ago, he built a wooden shack, decorated it with scraps of carpet, and invited blues musicians to play every Sunday.
"John died about five years ago, his house burned down about two years ago, so we brought it over here," to the empty field, Barrow says. He met Estes about a decade ago through a singer named Pretty Paul. He and singer Kenny Miller are the driving forces behind the Sunday jams. They cut the lawn, clean the Porta-John and occasionally ask the crowd to donate some money to cut the grass, put gas in the generator.
"Detroit is the blues, man. Everybody knows that. We just do it because it's seems a way to give back to the neighborhood. You can see how people connect to the songs." Barrow says.
They are songs of haunting loss and raunchy humor. Tales of mean women and unfaithful men. Too much drinking and not nearly enough money or work. Occasionally, the mercy of Jesus is sought.
People of all ages and sizes dance unabashedly. Some drink freely. If anyone gets too rowdy, members of motorcycle gangs who are devoted fans step in and keep the peace, organizers said. But people here seem intent on forgetting about their troubles instead of starting any.
"John used to say if you didn't like blues, you had a hole in your soul," Barrow says. "This is Detroit soul."