St. Louis’ connection to the blues got a little tighter with the April 2016 grand opening of the National Blues Museum.
The 23,000-square-foot museum, housed in a restored 1908 building downtown, chronicles the history and influence this American-grown music has had on almost every other musical genre—jazz, rock ’n’ roll, pop, rap, folk, even country—in the last 100 years. A few hours in the museum will open visitors’ eyes to how many artists, here and abroad, credit the blues with shaping their music.
From Africa to Zeppelin
Exhibits and interactive displays tell the story of the blues’ roots in Africa, its pioneers and migration across the U.S., its regional influences and its role in today’s world. Near the entrance, a film narrated by Morgan Freeman offers a brief history of the genre and sets the stage for the museum experience.
Fun quotes about the blues from singers, musicians and others are sprinkled throughout the building. One fun example: “The blues had a baby, and they called it rock ’n’ roll,” from a song by Muddy Waters.
Visitors can put their musical talents to use by creating their own blues track, adding to it as they make their way through the museum and taking it home as a memento. Another interactive experience: Jug Band Jammin’. Here, visitors have the opportunity to jam with the River City Revelers jug band (whose members appear on interactive screens) and play such “old-timey” instruments as a washboard or shaker.
The women who made their mark on the blues world—including Mother of the Blues Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Ida Cox and Janis Joplin—are honored. There’s a display featuring a clip from 1929’s St. Louis Blues, one of the first talkies ever made, with what is probably the only film footage of the legendary Bessie Smith.
Those who aren’t necessarily blues fans will be intrigued to discover the genre’s marked impact on rock legends such as Eric Clapton, the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
One of the earliest rock ’n’ roll stars to acknowledge the influence of the blues on his music was St. Louis native Chuck Berry. His red Gibson guitar, a sequined stage outfit, vinyl records and other artifacts fill the space dedicated to the rock pioneer. A display with similar items visitors won’t want to miss is dedicated to another giant of the music industry, B.B. King.
While the museum is fun, modern and educational, it isn’t as chock-full of artifacts and memorabilia as one might expect. There’s little in the way of artists’ personal items, instruments, stage costumes, or platinum, gold and silver records that fill similar venues such as Cleveland’s Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame or Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent because there’s plenty here to fill the senses in other ways. The museum is home to a 100-plus-seat theater and performance space for live concerts and events, and there’s also a space dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
For more information, call (314) 925-0016 or visit nationalbluesmuseum.org. Call (800) 916-8938 or go to explorestlouis.com for information on other St. Louis attractions. Contact your AAA Travel agent or AAA.com/travel for help planning your vacation.
St. Louis Cardinals
Busch Stadium downtown is a great place to enjoy America’s favorite pastime. The stadium sits across the street from the bustling Ballpark Village, an entertainment venue with restaurants and bars. In the middle of the village is Cardinals Nation, featuring a restaurant and bar (with plenty of TVs to catch the Birds in action), a retail store, the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, and a 330-plus-seat rooftop deck.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
As grand as any cathedral in Europe, this Romanesque beauty is a mosaic masterpiece, and as such, visitors hardly know where to look first. It’s one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest collections of mosaic artwork—mostly Byzantine with a little Italian thrown in—and covers 83,000 square feet. Not a single square inch is painted.
It took 22 artists 76 years (from 1912 to 1988) to finish the designs that illustrate stories from Scripture, historical Judeo-Christian figures and scenes from the Roman Catholic Church’s history in the New World. Visitors are welcome to tour the cathedral on their own or with a guide as well as attend Mass. The cathedral’s lower level houses a museum.
Part of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, the Old Courthouse is a significant architectural and judicial landmark. Here, slaves Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom in 1847 and 1850. A significant step in the suffrage movement also took place in the Old Courthouse when Virginia Minor sued for the right to vote; her case eventually went to the Supreme Court. Admission to the Old Courthouse is free and tours are self-guided.