Notwithstanding the declaration by the New York Times that St. Louis is one of the top destinations for 2016, it remains a vastly underrated city. Yet, in terms of its quality of life, the friendliness of its inhabitants, its restaurants and its museums, the city has much to offer. The latest addition to the repertoire of things to see and do is the National Blues Museum.
A quote from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones on one of the walls epitomizes the raison d’etre of the museum: “If you don’t know blues, there’s no point in picking up a guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”
Few forms of music can claim a history as long, as influential or as rich as the blues. West African slaves originally brought the sounds to America. It was their means of recalling their lost lives and of maintaining a link to their traditions and cultures.
As African-American musicians migrated from the southern states, and specifically the Mississippi Delta, up Highway 61, looking for new opportunities, they brought their musical tradition, first to St. Louis and then beyond to the entire world. In the process, the blues have influenced every genre of popular music for the last 100 plus years.
Opened on 2 April 2016 in a cavernous, renovated department store building in downtown St. Louis, the single-story, 14,000 square foot National Blues Museum takes you on an exploration of this musical tradition in all its aspects, accompanied by the sounds of classic blues musical performances by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and the Allman Brothers. Photos and memorabilia highlight the historical importance of the blues and its impact on the present.
An introductory video includes clips from Morgan Freeman proclaiming that “The Blues is the soundtrack to Segregation,” to Robert Plant of Led Zepplin explaining how the blues sparked the creative interest of such groups as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others, bringing them to America. “In the UK we were transfixed by the Mississippi Delta and the poetry that came out of it,” says Plant.
Nearby is a fully equipped sound stage with a seating capacity of 180 that hosts both local and internationally known musicians with live performances on Thursday through Saturday of each week.
One of the first (and probably most popular) displays you come across is a computer screen where you sign in and then write your own song lyrics. As you wander through the displays, you add musical riffs (guitar, harmonica, piano) to your composition. Just before you leave the museum, you stop in a sound studio and mix it all up into your own blues creation. Then you email it to yourself! I can’t say that our original effort was anything worth keeping, but it was an education in the elements that go into creating a blues composition.
The Jug Room is another very popular display. Inside a small studio you touch a computer, and your face is added to the members of the Jug Band performing on the screen. You then select your instrument – spoons, a washboard, bones, or shakers – and play along with the band. If you are going with kids, be prepared to spend a lot of time in here. It is a good lesson on how music can be created with anything and everything.
You can take the process one step further. Imagine yourself on stage! Step up to a microphone in front of a life-sized vintage photo and sing along with Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds of the 1920s.
Just beyond is a wall lined with battered, worn suitcases and trunks. The Wall immortalizes the journey of musicians who came up to St. Louis from the Delta during the so-called Great Migration.
Around the corner, a display of silver harmonicas twinkle in the floodlights. Who can forget the lonesome, haunting sound of a harmonica played in the twilight at the end of the day? They belong to Jim McClarnes, a St. Louis harmonica player who donated his 900 harmonicas to the museum.
One display of particular interest is an old recording device used by John Lomax, Curator of the Archive of American Folk Songs who, in the 1930s, traveled the byways of the Deep South, making recordings of the music performed by sharecroppers and others. The original sounds of the blues have been preserved for posterity thanks to his efforts.
As you reach the end of the exhibits a quote from Muddy Waters proclaims, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.” A display about the great Chuck Berry (a St. Louis resident) sits near one about British musicians, including the Beatles, explaining how they created their own versions of the Delta blues songs for a new generation that was hearing the genre of music for the first time.
The National Blues Museum is but the latest of the many opportunities to enjoy life in St. Louis.
IF YOU GO
The National Blues Museum is located at 615 Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis in the Mercantile District. It is open Sunday –Monday from noon to 5 pm, Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm.
Admission is $15 for adults and lesser amounts for seniors, students and groups.
To reach the Museum use the Metrolink at 6th and Washington. On weekdays trains run approximately every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 or so otherwise. (See www.metrostlouis.org for fare stations and timetables).There are numerous parking lots in the downtown area as well.
If you have worked up an appetite, be sure to stop in at Sugarfire Smoke House right next door to the Museum (605 Washington Ave. (314-997-2301) open seven days a week from 11 am until they run out of food.) The barbecued Baby Back Ribs and baked beans are the best!