Even before it opened, I took out a membership in the National Blues Museum, which is a few short blocks from my office in downtown St. Louis. What an exciting resource, and how honored we are to have it in our little city! But the museum is basically open when I’m working on weekdays, and I don’t like to drive downtown again on weekends – so it took me a while before I actually spent time there.
First impression was that it was unfinished. It felt like the start of something really cool, like maybe the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame/Museum felt at the beginning. There are two walls of photos of blues legends, many of whom were unfamiliar to me. These funnel incoming guests to an introductory video, narrated by Morgan Freeman, that gives a very basic outline of the migration up the Mississippi, and the influence of the blues on American music. From All About Jazz:
The blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. The blues originated on Southern plantations in the 19th Century. Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves—African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields. It's generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.
The blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Blues and jazz have always influenced each other, and they still interact in countless ways today.
Unlike jazz, the blues didn't spread out significantly from the South to the Midwest until the 1930s and '40s. Once the Delta blues made their way up the Mississippi to urban areas, the music evolved into electrified Chicago blues, other regional blues styles, and various jazz-blues hybrids. A decade or so later the blues gave birth to rhythm 'n blues and rock 'n roll.
The video is too short. I want more. There are snippets of performances by Howlin’ Wolf and others, and you can’t go wrong with Morgan Freeman, and I got the basic idea … but I wanted more. Something like a map coming to life, with blues music making its way upriver and transforming as it encounters Gospel and country/western and Elvis and whatnot. The story is there, but it’s too bare.
And that’s basically how I felt about the whole museum. There are lots of photos, but not nearly enough SOUND. There’s an exhibit built of vintage luggage, with photos of performers, that takes the viewer on the migration route and tries to show regional variations. So these things stuck in my head, but it felt a little sparse. Recently I watched the Danny Glover movie Honeydripper - a wonderful blues fable - in which the difference between Delta blues and Creole blues is pivotal. I wanted more examples of these regional differences.
It would have been more fun if I’d had a friend with me. Alone, I didn’t spend much time with the interactive exhibits, which are probably the best part. You can sit in on an old-time jam session and play your choice of “instruments” like spoons or washboard. I think this would be a blast if I had someone to share it with. A few people did come in while I was there, and there was a little embarrassed laughter as they tried things out, but I didn’t stay long.
I really enjoyed the kiosk that let me hear different versions of classic blues songs – to hear how different influences change the sound over time and geography. I tried Statesboro Blues, which I know as an Allman Brothers song – but I could dial it from Blind Willie McTell’s original to Taj Mahal to Allman Brothers, and hear the individual interpretations and development of the tune.
At this kiosk and many others, the visitor put on headphones to test out the sounds. This may be why I found the museum itself surprisingly silent. You could hear bits of blues music from video screens in a couple of places, but for the most part the exhibits were silent and visual. And where there WAS music, I couldn’t believe my fellow patrons – all stiff, uptight white people like me – weren’t moving, feeling it, swaying to the beat. I was Snoopy dancing with every new guitar lick that hit me!
There seemed to be a surprising lack of memorabilia, but maybe they’re still in the process of buying in things – or maybe I just wasn’t interested enough in the harmonica used by this individual or the homemade sound box of another, so it didn’t have much impact on me. Or, you know, both. Did they have the dress Bessie Smith wore when she recorded Downhearted Blues? Mayyyybe. I’m not crazy about fashion, so I’d probably walk past it thinking, “Huh, there’s a dress. Gosh, she was short.” What I’m saying is, maybe there are exhibits that would have come to life for me had there been narration or a companion who was excited about it.
There were headphones at some of the exhibits, where you could hear Bessie Smith singing Downhearted Blues, for example. I think I was put off by the scratchy early recording quality. But then I found it odd that the music I could hear in loops over the later exhibits seemed to be mostly white people – the Allman Brothers and Clapton, that sort of thing. Why not more Muddy Waters, B.B. King, etc.? I wondered, but I also wiggled to the beat.
But back to the interactive bits. Near the beginning of the tour, there was a kiosk that let you make up your own blues lyrics. Included in this display was the option to record your lyrics for a CD. I skipped that option, because I wasn’t especially proud of my lyrics and it wasn’t something I wanted for a keepsake. Then a little bit later, there was a kiosk where you could mix your own melody; then, further on down the road, you could add a guitar solo or whatever. I’m not sure what all the components were. I don’t think I tried them all.
Big mistake. Near the end of the exhibits is a sound room where you can put all your pieces together in an editing suite provided by Jack White. As a wannabe recording engineer, I would have loved to try this out! – but I didn’t have the pieces recorded, and I didn’t want to start over again. I will know next time.
And finally, there’s a Spotify type menu – right up against the gift shop – where you can sample the music of contemporary St. Louis blues musicians. I knew of Marquise Knox because some friends go hear him regularly in the blues clubs, so I paid particular attention to his music, and loved it! Still waiting for the right opportunity to go hear him live.
The National Blues Museum offers a lot of live music programs, and I hear great things about them. Today I am missing Carolyn Mason performing the music of Etta James, as part of the Women of the Blues exhibit that is there through the end of the month. They have a Howlin’ Fridays series, and Marquise Knox will be there on March 31. I hope to catch that one. But I also hope to be exposed to other musicians and learn more about the development of the blues.