The National Blues Museum, which opened to the public April 2, rightfully places St. Louis among other American music capitals like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Chicago. If Route 66 is the Mother Road, the blues is St. Louis's Mother Lode.
The museum is in the heart of downtown St. Louis's Mercantile Exchange District on Washington Avenue. The Mississippi River flows a few blocks to the east. On its shores, thousands of newly freed slaves first set foot in Missouri more than a century ago.
Those former slaves, their families, and the people who followed them from throughout the south carried with them an emotional legacy of oppression that flowed in their veins and out of their fingertips, their voices, and their tapping toes through the blues–a musical form that is the root of all popular music before and since, from jazz to rock to country and beyond.
"The movement of the blues from south to north, its survival and spread through ever-changing technology, and its continuing legacy and influence are the museum's main interpretive themes," says Jacqueline Dace, the museum's director of internal affairs, who walked with me through the museum.
One of the first stories shared in the museum's 16,000 square feet of exhibit space is that of W. C. Handy. Handy came to St. Louis in the 1890s from Alabama and spent his first Missouri nights sleeping on the riverfront. His 1914 composition "St. Louis Blues" immortalized the connection between the River City and the blues. Before the automobile, most people moving north from the Deep South had to go through St. Louis, bringing the music with them. Even as some people moved on, the music stayed.
The museum then opens up to pay homage to the women of the blues–including the only video that exists of Mimi Smith, singing, appropriately enough, "St. Louis Blues." This space also features exhibits that recognize the blues' early branches, from jug bands and tent shows to vaudeville, which expanded the music's audience in the north beyond urban areas.
Because the blues originated as an oral tradition, it had to be written down and recorded to become a permanent part of American culture. Sheet music began to be widely published and distributed in the early 20th century, but in the 1930s the father-son team of John and Alan Lomax traveled throughout the south with a car full of recording equipment to capture the music as it was actually played–and felt.
Their recordings, housed in the Library of Congress, preserved the art and soul of the blues. Examples of the Lomax's equipment are on display, in front of a photograph showing the interior of their heavily loaded car.
"It's amazing to me that they traveled around with all of that recording equipment, when today you could do what they did with your phone," says Dace. "I can’t imagine what the musicians thought when they saw them."
In the 1940s and '50s, Chicago gained an upper hand over St. Louis in the blues tradition because of the Windy City's many recording studios. By then, it was easier for musicians to get to Chicago, and selling recorded music allowed musicians to make a living by playing the blues. But St. Louis had a secret weapon: Chuck Berry.
Berry, who still lives near St. Louis and until recently performed monthly at Blueberry Hill on the Delmar Loop, brought the blues to American teenagers in the 1950s.
"He is the father of rock 'n' roll," Dace says, pointing out a display of the diverse group of artists who have recorded Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode." From Judas Priest to Emmylou Harris to Peter Tosh, "Johnny B. Goode" is the story of the blues itself: the "country boy" who lived "deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans" and "never ever learned to read or write so well / But he could play the guitar just like a-ringing a bell."
A decade later, as middle-class American teenagers were discovering folk music, English musicians like the Rolling Stones were discovering the blues. As Richard Cohen points out in his forthcoming book, The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones, they were children of World War II–kids who had grown up in bombed-out buildings, living on rations into the 1950s. The blues' themes of "sadness, solitude, and forces outside of one's control," to quote an exhibit label, resonated powerfully with them. The "British Invasion" was on the way–ironically, with a musical form that was distinctly American.
One of the museum's most poignant cases memorializes what Dace calls "the two kings"–Bobby Rush, King of the Chitlin' Circuit, and B. B. King, King of the Blues. The case houses one of Rush's outfits and King's famous guitar, "Lucille," on loan from the B. B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi.
"A musician named Lil' Ray Neal played this particular guitar at B. B.'s funeral," Dace explains. "The story is that as soon as he started playing it, it started to rain. Neal just started going crazy on the guitar. And as soon as he stopped playing, it stopped raining. That's why I say Lucille has a mind of her own. Lucille is real."
Dace also recalls when National Blues Museum Executive Director Dion Brown (former executive director of the B. B. King Museum) took Rush through the museum a few months ago.
"He got kind of emotional when he saw this case," she says. "He said it was the last time he would ever appear with B. B. King."
The museum makes its own contribution to blues' technological heritage through its interactive exhibits. At "Jug Band Jammin'," visitors can record themselves "playing" traditional jug band instruments, like the washboard, and watch a playback of the jam session on video. Another exhibit demonstrates how different artists have interpreted various blues songs over the years–Led Zeppelin's version of Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault but Mine" took me back to high school.
But the highlight is "AAB," the musical experience that follows visitors throughout the museum as they create the lyrics, title, and album cover to their own blues songs, adding harmonica, piano, and guitar while exploring the museum. A recording of the song and the lyrics are sent to the "musicians" via email before leaving the museum.
One of the great myths of American society that has been exploded in recent years is that of the post-racial society. It occurred to me while touring the museum and seeing the many photos and videos of white musicians performing traditionally black music, often alongside black musicians, that music may be the only place where true racial harmony is possible.
Someday, that harmony may flow out of the music and into everyday life. But until then, there's the National Blues Museum.