116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Gateway Arch, the zoo, Six Flags, Grant’s Farm, the Budweiser Clydesdales, plays at the Muny, a ballgame. Those are the attractions that drew my family and school field trips to St. Louis time after time in my youth. It was even a big deal in the ’60s to stand on an observation deck and watch planes take off and land at the airport.
So much excitement was just a 3½-hour drive from my home in southeast Iowa.
Tack on another 1½ hours to get there from Cedar Rapids, and I’ve been back several times as an adult, mostly to wander through art exhibits and the zoo, and marvel in the view from the top of the Arch.
One place I’ve never been is the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., just inside the northern end of Forest Park.
A free exhibit there is offering a view of St. Louis you can’t see from the Arch.
“St. Louis Sound” is a 6,000-square-foot sensory immersion in the city’s contribution to the American music scene, from the earliest phonograph recording to Nelly’s “Country Grammar” video, shot in the city where he grew up.
The exhibit, on view through Jan. 22, 2023, traces the St. Louis origins of America’s first four pop music genres — ragtime, blues, jazz and hillbilly (country).
What: St. Louis Sound exhibit
Where: Missouri History Museum, in Forest Park, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis
When: Now through Jan. 22, 2023
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; closed Monday, Thanksgiving and Christmas; masks required
Other exhibits: Gateway to Pride, Beyond the Ballot, What’s in a Name?, The 1904 World’s Fair, Seeking St. Louis and History Clubhouse
Holiday events: Dec. 2: Sounds of the Season with St. Louis Metro Singers; Dec. 9: Acoustik Element Holiday Concert; Dec. 16: "Meet Me in St. Louis" film screening; Dec. 30: Prohibition Party with the Arcadia Dance Orchestra; and Winter Getaway events for children and families Dec. 28 to 31, with music, arts and crafts, storytelling and a Noon Year’s Eve celebration
“The main goal of this exhibit is for us to say that St. Louis is one of the great American music cities,” said Jody Sowell, the museum’s managing director of public history. “You shouldn’t just think of Memphis or Nashville or Chicago or New Orleans or Austin when thinking about cities that really should be considered a music capital. St. Louis is certainly one.
“Without St. Louis, you would not have Scott Joplin and Josephine Baker and Tina Turner and Fontella Bass and Miles Davis and Chuck Berry and Nelly,” Sowell said. “Just that list of names that you will see in this exhibit proves how influential St. Louis was and is in popular music history.”
All of the panels, signage and displays were created in-house by graphic artists and designers, among others, including an illustrator to assist with visuals from artists like Scott Joplin for whom there aren’t a lot of photos.
“It was a way for us to bring these artists to life,” Sowell said. “You’ll also see a great mural at the very beginning, of all of the artists put together, with a quote from ‘Country Grammar’: ‘I’m from the Lou and I’m proud.’ Another function of this exhibit is to make them proud of their own history.”
Sights and sounds
The exhibit also features more than 200 artifacts, many of which were borrowed from the artists, heirs and historically significant sites.
Visitors will see the dress Tina Turner wore on a New Year’s Eve appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” While Turner was born in Brownsville, Tenn., the now 81-year-old “queen of rock ’n’ roll” stepped onstage for the first time in St. Louis, Sowell noted, so her connection to the city is steeped in history.
“St. Louis is where her career was born, accidentally,” he said, explaining that Ike Turner had intended to record “A Fool in Love” with another female singer, “who made the worst decision in music history” by not showing up. Ike turned to backup singer Tina, who knew all the words.
But that’s not the rest of the story. Sowell added that Ike Turner wasn’t going to release that album or single until a DJ from St. Louis’ Club Imperial told him, “You’ve got gold here. You’ve got to release this record because this woman is a star.”
Stories like that are tucked among the memorabilia and hands-on features throughout the exhibit.
Visitors will see and hear the St. Louis Tinfoil — the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the earliest known recording of a musical performance. It was recorded in St. Louis on June 22, 1878, about six months after Edison invented the phonograph, Sowell said. This past spring, the Library of Congress declared it one of 25 “audio treasures worthy of preservation for all time,” to be added to the National Recording Registry.
Other items on display include guitars from Chuck Berry, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Albert King and Mel Bay; trumpets used by Miles Davis and Clark Terry; and a dress and theater artifacts of entertainer, French resistance agent and civil rights activist Josephine Baker.
The section on Nelly, who will be performing at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse in Cedar Rapids on Jan. 22, has one particularly interesting aspect, Sowell noted.
“We have a vibration box for people who are deaf and can’t hear Nelly. They can actually touch this box and it vibrates, so that they can feel the sound waves from ‘Country Grammar.’ We’re always looking for ways to make our exhibits as accessible as possible to all visitors,” Sowell said, “and that’s an exciting way in that section.”
Other displays highlight the city’s punk scene, the Guns N’ Roses concert that incited a riot, and the city’s early radio days.
“We say that this particular sound exhibit goes from the dawn of recorded sound all the way up to today,” Sowell said.
It’s among the largest the museum has mounted in the 15 years he has been there. It’s been in the planning stages for eight years, curated since 2014, and cost between $250,000 and $300,000 to produce.
"We haven't been working on it every day since then, but it just shows you how long some of these exhibits are being planned,“ Sowell said. ”This one was especially important to have a long time (to plan), because we relied so much on the community — Fontella Bass’ daughter, who loans us the gold record for ‘Rescue Me’. It is Nelly and his team that let us borrow the microphone, the jersey (and) Stax Records in Memphis that let us borrow an Albert King guitar.
“This one was really built by the St. Louis community and the music community truly across the country,” Sowell said. “That type of exhibit takes a long time to put into place, and it's one of the reasons we're so proud.”
The museum complex also holds other treasures just waiting to be discovered, as well as major temporary exhibits.
“This is what we do,” Sowell said, “with major exhibits that are large and really connect with people from many different perspectives.
“What we're really trying to do as a long-term project is tell you a full history of St. Louis. Sometimes we might tell you about music. Sometimes we might tell you about architecture. Sometimes we might tell you about the Mississippi River or aviation industry.
“But what we're doing in the long term is telling you a complete story about St. Louis.”
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