Why St. Louis, my hometown? Why is the new National Blues Museum here? Why not in Chicago, Kansas City, even Memphis? Well, St. Louis’ NHL team since 1967 is called The Blues, and St. Louis Blues, W.C. Handy’s 102-year-old standard, is still known all over the world. Handy lived in St. Louis. So does Chuck Berry. So did Scott Joplin.
But Joplin’s music was ragtime, tunes that he raised from vulgar bordello music to a classical art form. The Blues influenced him. It has impacted almost all types of music. The Blues is heard in jazz, folk, country, rap, rock, etc. Rolling Stone Keith Richards said, “If you don’t know the BLUES…there’s no point in picking up the GUITAR and playing ROCK AND ROLL….” I read this on a wall in the National Blues Museum next to a picture of Richards performing.
The National Blues Museum, which officially opened April 2, 2016, does an outstanding job of explaining the history of The Blues, injecting this music into everyone’s consciousness, and convincing visitors that it’s here to stay. The Blues originated on Africa’s West Coast with the creation of such musical instruments as the halam, forerunner of the banjo, talking drums, etc. It came to North America during the slave era and put down deep roots in The South.
W.C. Handy is considered the Father of the Blues. His musical compositions were influenced by the Delta Blues he heard as a minstrel player, band leader, etc. Jug Band musicians in vaudeville and medicine shows popularized it. The Mississippi River became its highway north from New Orleans. A genuine blues breakthrough occurred in 1920 when Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues” became a national hit. As a result of it, record companies began looking for African-American performers. Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and many others achieved careers. By 1922 George Gershwin had composed Blue Monday, a one-act musical set in Harlem, and Rhapsody in Blue was on its way.
National Blues Museum co-founder Dave Beardsley, who played a piano roll for me, has said to National Geographic, “We’re proud to have the museum in St. Louis because we have a blues music history dating back to the winter of 1892….” I look forward to returning for performances on its nightclub-like stage that will feature both local and national acts. In the meantime, the 5 Compass National Blues Museum on the ground-floor of an old downtown department store will continue to delight anyone who wanders in to see its artifacts (my favorite is a stunning harmonica collection) and delight in its many interactive displays focusing on how The Blues can be heard in most forms of music.