It’s easy to overlook the humble structure at the intersection of Chene and Farnsworth that houses the Raven Lounge. But to do so would be to miss one of Detroit’s oldest blues clubs.
The lounge was originally the site for Mazur’s Bar, a Polish bar known for its live polka bands. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the surrounding neighborhood consisted of mostly Polish immigrants, but gradually immigrants from Albania, Yugoslavia, and the Philippines also moved in, as did African-Americans. During the Great Migration, which began in 1916, large numbers of African-Americans left the South for industrial jobs in Northern cities. Detroit, with its burgeoning automobile industry, was one such city. Bringing with them musical and culinary traditions, they set up shop wherever they could. Due to race-based housing restrictions, many African-Americans were forced to live in Detroit’s densely-populated neighborhoods, one of which was located in the near east side and known as Black Bottom. In an adjoining neighborhood called Paradise Valley, the main thoroughfare, Hastings Street, was soon lined with bars, cabarets, and restaurants. A blues scene flourished there, and prominent musicians such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday traveled to perform in Detroit.
The Raven Lounge opened a few miles away from Paradise Valley in the 1960s. While the unassuming exterior of Raven Lounge might make it easy to overlook, the inside is an entirely different story. An old-fashioned wooden bar gleams in lamplight and sparkly streamers hang above the stage on which the musicians croon, drum, and strum. Patrons are usually regulars who come dressed in their Sunday best or hipsters looking for an authentic musical experience. A few minutes into any performance, many of the guests rise and start dancing to the music. Those who remain seated are usually chowing down on some of the lounge’s delicious soul food.
Attending a performance here is like stepping back in time, probably the most comparable experience can be had in the Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Indeed, a place like the Raven Lounge would not be nearly as obscure as it is if it were located in a city such as New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. However, the many challenges that Detroit has faced have kept the city, and, by extension, this music venue, off most people’s travel bucket lists until recently.
As the city recovers from its financial crisis, young people are increasingly moving to Motown and seeking out places and experiences that are quintessentially “Detroit.” Given this trend, it’s possible that the Raven Lounge will soon be a must-see for locals and visitors alike.
Know Before You Go
Performances are held Thursday through Saturday from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.