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Friday, February 13, 2015

How Will We Tell the Complicated Story of the Blues in St. Louis?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 13, 2015 at 4:40 AM

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Prior to this effort there were a few regional museums, such as the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, that were known to attract visitors from all over the world. But there wasn't a blues museum with a national scope.

See also: CNN: National Blues Museum Among Top 10 Anticipated World Attractions

According to museum cofounder and STLBlues.net-creator Dave Beardsley, filling that void was the primary motivation for the project -- but he also expressed hope that it could restore the city's reputation. Piano-heavy St. Louis blues and its close cousin, jump blues, he explained, were among the most popular styles in the 1920s and '30s, before being overshadowed by the electric guitars and harps of Chicago, which have dominated airwaves ever since and left St. Louis' blues legacy mostly forgotten.

With 100,000 tourists expected in its first year, however, there is palpable hope that St. Louis will reclaim its title as one of America's blues cities, among the ranks of Chicago and Memphis.

The home of the National Blues Museum on Washington Avenue. - GOOGLE MAPS
  • Google Maps
  • The home of the National Blues Museum on Washington Avenue.

That isn't to say that the museum will turn St. Louis into another Memphis (God help us), but there is a very good chance that it will shape how people around the world think about both the city and its music.

The museum's mission is primarily educational, "to tell the complete story of the blues -- and the people who created it," per museum board of directors chairman Rob Endicott's words. But that has to make you wonder what sorts of stories they will tell.

To say that the blues "soundtracked [African Americans'] path to empowerment within American society," as the museum's official educational goals states, seems to skirt the fact that although many of these blues artists improved their respective economic situations, they still tended to get screwed over on things like publishing rights and royalties by label-owners and promoters (case in point: Chess Records).

There's nothing wrong with celebrating pieces of America's cultural heritage, but waxing nostalgic about the eras that created them can be dangerous. Many people who lived through the Great Depression, the intense xenophobia of the 1920s and '30s, and Jim Crow segregation didn't later yearn for the good ol' days. There would be a sort of sick irony in ignoring that, especially in a year when St. Louis has been forced to grapple with its own recent history: We've been forced to consider how tensions over things like city planning, school zoning, and community policing smoldered and smoked for decades, until the death of Michael Brown broke the camel's back and the city caught fire.

And so, as St. Louis prepares to launch a major new venture, one centered around a piece of both the city's and the country's histories, it is imperative to ask: When we look at our past, what do we see?

Back at the Venice Cafe, Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes wound down the set to a fading crowd. Though people had packed into the bar midway through the show, once midnight struck, the audience was just a flicker of what it had been.

The few people remaining sat at their tables, finishing their cocktails and beers as Sarah crooned her way through the last few numbers. The trumpets laughed softly over the sweet melodies of the saxophone, and the audience gazed at the band, floating along in a boozy dream.

The group grooved through "When I Get Low I Get High," and Sarah Jane thanked everyone for coming. Then, the music stopped. People in the audience awoke from their trance and paid their tabs. Within a few minutes, the musicians had broken down their gear and packed up, and they too disappeared out the front door and into the night.

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