Shocker grad writes the Wichita Blues

Writer, musician, scholar and retired postman Patrick J. O’Connor ’89 utilized 25 years of fieldwork and interviews with 19 Wichita blues performers to write Wichita Blues: Music in the African American Community. Published by the University Press of Mississippi, the book celebrates the distinct sound and history of Wichita’s regional blues tradition.

Always drawn to the blues and its “artistry of storytelling,” O’Connor, a multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar), completed his master’s degree in communications at WSU with a final survey project on the blues, differentiating urban and rural styles. In 1996, he conducted a regional blues study for the Kansas African American Museum and served as director for the museum’s traveling exhibit of “The Tradition of Blues in Wichita: African Americans Tell Their Stories.” He also took part in the Kansas Historical Society’s 1996-97 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and was apprenticed to bluesman Charlie Phillips better known as Harmonica Chuck (1935-1998). And in 1998 his collection of oral history recordings, performance recordings and photographs of prominent blues musicians in Wichita was worked into the book Wichita Blues: Discovery and published by the Wichita Blues Project. The collection resides permanently in WSU’s University Libraries Special Collections & University Archives.

Drawing on all of those experiences and materials, O’Connor focuses on the evolution of the blues from the 1930s into the 1960s and beyond in Wichita Blues: Music in the African American Community. By showcasing blues musicians and their personal stories, the book traces African American history in Kansas and details how migration from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, in particular, brought so many varied blues artists to the Wichita area, enriching the city’s musical traditions across racial divides and generations.

A native Wichitan, O’Connor has taught anthropology, history, communications, technical writing and literature at several area universities, including Wichita State, where he first enrolled as an undergraduate in 1966. He recalls, “I got a chance to work on the Sunflower as a freshman, with no experience in high school journalism.” Unable to finish his college studies then, he set off on a journey that took him across the country with stops in Los Angeles (to play in a rock band), San Francisco (for the Summer of Love in 1967) and Cleveland (to work at La Cave, which began as a coffeehouse folk club and became an influential rock ’n’ roll club).

In 1971, he continued his journey, this time to England, where he took a 1936 National steel guitar and played the country blues. After returning to the States, he joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1973 as a letter carrier. In 1983, he returned to WSU, completing his graduate degree in 1989. “I worked as a letter carrier during this time and after graduation,” he says. “My route was just south of campus, which meant both students and faculty lived on it. I was Wilner’s, Duerksen’s and Jim Kirby’s mailman in the 1970s and 1980’s.” That’s George Wilner, the namesake of Wilner Auditorium; Walter Duerksen, for whom Duerksen Fine Arts Center is named; and the founder of Kirby’s Beer Store.

“Later on, researching the blues,” O’Connor continues, “I taught a non-credit course at WSU on the subject which was picked up by the anthropology department. So, I went from Wichita State dropout to university lecturer in the short span of 25 years. I feel WSU offers opportunity to many and varied students, with the city a suitable backdrop.”

Wichita Blues with a foreword by noted ethnomusicologist David Evans features O’Connor’s interviews with 19 of the city’s most influential blues artists; among them are Harmonica Chuck, Erick Robinson, Glonquez Brown, Berry Harris and Henry Cole. The book is available now as an ebook and will be out in hardcover and paperback in September 2024.

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