For most local residents, the combination of the words "St. Louis" and "blues" means only one thing: hockey. But if a dedicated group of business executives, community leaders and music enthusiasts has their way, that's all about to change.
By late next year, the group hopes to open the doors to a major new museum exploring the past, present and future of blues music. The proposed National Blues Museum will be located at 601 Washington Ave. in downtown St. Louis and will include 23,000 square feet of exhibit space filled with both historic artifacts and high-tech displays. Plans for the museum include a 100-seat performance venue, touch-screen exhibits and educational programming with both onsite and in-classroom opportunities to explore the history of blues music.
The museum aims to fill a significant void in the nation's understanding and appreciation for this uniquely American music form.
"There are national museums that celebrate the history of rock 'n' roll, jazz, country, bluegrass and rockabilly, plus a number of museums that pay homage to blues history associated with specific geographic areas. But there's no national museum that celebrates blues as the foundation of all modern American music," said Rob Endicott, chairman of the museum's board of directors.
The National Blues Museum will attempt to do just that by exploring the full sweep of blues music, from its humble roots in the cotton fields and logging camps of the American south to its northward expansion and electrification in cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit. The museum also will examine the various branches of music that have evolved out of blues.
Although fundraising for the museum project still has a way to go, those efforts recently got a big boost when Pinnacle Entertainment and Lumiere Place Casino and Hotels announced a $6 million contribution to the museum's capital campaign. When coupled with previous donations and several tax credits, the latest contribution puts the project well on its path to completion. News of the museum's progress led to a mini-uproar last month among some Chicagoans who argued that their city would be a more appropriate setting for such an institution. While there's no denying the important role that Chicago has played in the history of the music, St. Louis boasts its own rich – albeit underappreciated – blues history.
The city first became widely associated with the blues when W.C. Handy's timeless classic "St. Louis Blues" was published in 1914. By the 1920s and '30s, St. Louis was a focal point for blues, particularly the popular piano-based music of men like Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes, Henry Brown, Peetie Wheatstraw and others. Guitarists like Lonnie Johnson and Big Joe Williams also called the city home. By the 1950s and '60s, St. Louis was home to such blues legends, rhythm and blues singers and early rock 'n' rollers as Chuck Berry, Albert King, Little Milton, Ike and Tina Turner, Ann Peebles, Fontella Bass and more. In recent years, many of St. Louis' elder statesmen of blues have passed on, but the city is still home to celebrated blues veterans like Big George Brock, as well as a whole new generation of young performers, including 21-year-old Marquis Knox who has become a major presence on the international blues scene in recent years. With the opening of the National Blues Museum, St. Louis is set to reclaim its status as one of the world's premier blues towns. For more information on the National Blues Museum visit www.nationalbluesmuseum.org.
Jeffrey Konkel is a volunteer at the National Blues Museum and the president and owner of Broke & Hungry Records, an independent record label dedicated to recording and promoting the rawest and wildest blues from the Mississippi Delta.