While impressive exhibits fill the new National Blues Museum, one of the simplest is guaranteed to bring a smile.
Next to the display paying homage to Chuck Berry is an image of the artist on a sequence of small photos that flip rapidly when a button is pushed. The animated Berry does his famous duck walk across a stage. Press the button to the left, and he duck walks on back.
Jacqueline Dace, interpretative manager of the museum, pointed out a couple of other interesting tidbits about the display that features a red-sequined outfit and red guitar in front of a large photo of Berry in action.
“You’ll notice that the sequins are worn off of the shirt by his guitar strap,” she said. “And the guitar is the same one he’s holding on the cover of his autobiography.”
The National Blues Museum opens April 2 in a renovated department store building in the city’s downtown business district. The museum retains some of the marble tile floors, ornate light fixtures and huge columns from its previous life.
The $14-million museum features 14,000 square feet of displays, plus a performance stage in a nightclub setting that will host local and national acts. There is a full-service bar, and the popular Sugarfire Smoke House has an outlet next door.
While other blues museums focus on a single artist or region, the new museum takes visitors on a musical journey that begins when the slaves arrive from Africa and bring the rhythms that spread from the Mississippi Delta up river, back overseas and throughout the world.
In the three-minute introductory video, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin explains how the music sparked the British Invasion that brought the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other English acts to America.
“In the U.K, we were transfixed by the Mississippi Delta and the poetry that came out of it,” Plant says.
St. Louis is the perfect place for the national museum, Dace said, because the migration of black musicians from the South headed up Highway 61 to St. Louis. Some stayed, and some ventured on to Kansas City and Chicago.
“The blues were coming out and creating a whole new genre that was not there before,” she said. “These were not people who were supposed to have emotions, to have souls. It came out in spirituals and gospel music and grew into the blues. They found their voice.
“Many people came to St. Louis and went further north, and kind of redefined the music as they went along. But in order to get to a wider audience, you had to come through St. Louis.”
The museum earned a rave review from one of those enshrined. Bonnie Raitt was performing in St. Louis and got a sneak preview. She told her sold-out audience: “I visited your new National Blues Museum this afternoon. It’s killer.”
The Great Migration
A tour of the museum, which is housed on a single floor of the cavernous building, starts with an interactive feature that is destined to be a favorite. Visitors sign in, write their own lyrics on a screen and then add musical riffs at different stations as they explore the exhibits.
“You add guitar, harmonica, piano, then mix it all up,” Dace said. “They compose their own song, and it is emailed to them.”
The Jug Band Room is sure to be another hit, especially with the kids. Inside a small studio, visitors play the spoons, shakers, washboard or bones. They touch a computer, and their face is added to the real jug band performing on the large screen in front of them.
Several audio displays allow visitors to experience different versions of the same song. You can hear Blind Lemon Jefferson, then Carl Perkins, then the Beatles play “Match Box Blues,” or Blind Willie McTell, Taj Majal and the Allman Brother Band perform “Statesboro Blues.”
Dace took a moment on the walking tour to step behind a microphone on a small stage with a life-sized vintage photo in the background. Snap a photo, and she appeared to be singing with Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds in 1920.
One side of a long hallway was stacked with well-worn luggage. “This is the traveling wall,” Dace said. “It shows how the musicians came from the Delta by foot, by boat, by train and by car during the Great Migration.”
Turn the corner, and a dazzling display of silver harmonicas highlights the wall.
“This is the collection of Jim McClaren, a St. Louis harmonica player – he had more than 900 harmonicas in his basement and he donated them to the museum,” Dace said. “It sort of looks like a contemporary art piece, now.”
Sharecropper Shacks and Juke Joints
The museum shows how evolving technology – from sheet music and jukeboxes to digital downloading and social media – spread the blues worldwide. Dace stopped by a long piece of gleaming wood furniture and asked “Remember these?”
She was referring to the console players that combined radio, television and stereo into a wooden cabinet that became a staple in the living rooms of the 1950s and 60s.
An older recording device sits in an exhibit that tells the story of John Lomax, curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, who visited the sharecropper shacks and juke joints of the Deep South in the 1930s to make recordings for the Library of Congress. Because of that work, we have for posterity the seminal sounds of the founding fathers of the blues like Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, Lead Belly and Muddy Waters.
As you explore the exhibits, an impromptu soundtrack plays in the background, thanks to the three videos that offer classic snippets of musical performances.
The unmistakable growl of Howlin’ Wolf resonates from the video that features festival performances from throughout the ages.
“Take me, baby, for your little boy… You get three hundred pounds of heavenly joy,” sings the Wolf, aka Chester Arthur Burnett, who was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1910.
He’s followed by B.B. King signing “The Thrill is Gone,” and the Allman Brothers doing “One Way Out.”
The Blues had a Baby
The faces of the Fab Four, along with a pair of guitars, dominate the exhibit that explains how the Beatles and other English groups arrived in America and played their version of Delta blues songs to screaming audiences, many of whom were hearing the tunes for the first time.
Printed on a wall is a quote from Keith Richards, eternal guitarist for the Stones: “If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”
Another nearby quote, this one from Muddy Waters, says it all: “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”
Standing upright in a case of its own, a sparkling red Gibson guitar, Model ES -355, looks like a sculpture. The guitar was the weapon of choice for a host of musical legends, including Albert and B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop.
The museum is at Washington and Sixth streets, within walking distance of the Gateway Arch. It has two rental spaces for events, and a gallery for traveling art exhibitions. The first exhibition is 31 paintings by H.C. Porter of Mississippi-based blues artists, paired with their oral histories.
Admission to the museum is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors over 65, $10 for college students with IDs, $12 for members of groups of 20 or more adults and $5 for those in school groups of 20. For more information, visit http://www.NationalBluesMuseum.org/.