This month the National Blues Museum opened in downtown St. Louis. Unlike other blues museums, which are dedicated to a regional style or a single musician, this new museum is dedicated to the history of the blues and how it influenced music and culture across the country and the world. Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks with Dion Brown, founding executive director, and Rob Endicott, chair of the board of directors of the National Blues Museum.
Interview Highlights: Dion Brown and Rob Endicott
What does this museum tell us about blues that has not been brought up by other museums?
Dion Brown: “What’s great about this museum, you know, you have a lot of different blues museums, such as the B.B. King Museum, you have the Delta Blues Museum, but what the National Blues Museum is about is all blues, and specifically it shows you how blues influenced so many different genres, influenced all genres of music.”
In what way, and how do you make that connection in the museum?
Brown: “I’ll give you one good one. We have a picture of Muddy Waters in the middle of Keith Richards and Wynton Marsalis and it says, ‘the blues had a baby, and they named it rock and roll.’ That pretty much sums it up, and it shows how the British invasion, we have a section in the museum on the British invasion, and how Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones, they attribute all of their early music back to the blues.”
Where did the idea come from to start a National Blues Museum?
Rob Endicott: “Well, you know, there was a development going on downtown and people were looking for a project that would put a stake in the ground in St. Louis around music. We have a great musical heritage, but we’ve never sort of claimed it and marketed it as such and as Dion said, we looked around and there wasn’t a museum that told the whole national story about the blues. It was all, it was about a region and an artist and we thought, St. Louis is central, geographically, to this story, between the Delta and Chicago, so why not stick it here and tie it all together?”
On claims that the museum should be in Chicago or Memphis
Endicott: “Well, we have a great place in the central story. In the Great Migration north, as people were coming up from the Delta to places like Chicago or Detroit, they would stop off at Memphis or St. Louis and in other places and they would put their own stamp on the music there. So it was a vital part of that story. We’d also have one of the first big hits, the St. Louis blues, but also artists who are central to the blues story who even in other genres, like Miles Davis was, in the way that jazz intersects with blues, and Chuck Barry and what he did with the blues and turned it into rock and roll. That’s our claim to it.”
How did blues get started in this country?
Brown: “How’d it get started, great question. If you trace it back, it started out in my mind in the Mississippi Delta, through the plantations and the work songs, the chants that came out of there. Then, as Rob mentioned, with the Great Migration it started travelling north. You had the people from Alabama, they went primarily to the East Coast and people in Louisiana they went to the West Coast. The people in Mississippi traveled up the Mississippi River and so, they carried their blues with them and then when they made their stake hold, wherever they stopped at, it picked up a different sound. So, to me, that’s how the blues has grown across the country, and even traveled overseas because you had people, sharecroppers, going overseas working, you know, and singing.”
What makes B.B. King stand out?
Endicott: “Boy, it’s the feeling there. It’s the restraint he had, I mean, you can hear it in his voice and in his guitar playing. It’s the selection of the notes and the way that he would bend them and just not playing, over playing. To me, that’s quintessential B.B. King right there.”
Who else stands out in the history of the blues?
Brown: “I had the honor of working with Mr. King at the B.B. King Museum for the last five years. Actually I was hired to come here from the B.B. King Museum. It’s his passion, I mean, all musicians have the passion, but Mr. King was just something else with the passion. He could hit one note on Lucille and you knew who he was and what he was about. You know, that’s the thing about the blues, and going and living in Mississippi, Mr. King’s hometown, you meet so many great blues musicians who didn’t make it, but they still had that passion, they’re still singers. The obvious is, W.C. Handy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, there’s so many, but there’s also so many. We just had an event up here, on March 31st, and there’s a travelling exhibit we have called Blues at Home, and it’s a painting of 31 Mississippi blues musicians and we had nine of them up here, from Bobby Rush to Denise Lasalle, Jimbo Mathus, Jesse Robinson. The list goes on, and they’re great entertainers. At the end of the night, Rob will tell you, they put on a jam session that the people who were in attendance – it was just mind-blowing. That is what the blues is: it’s a great feeling and they just love to be around their fans.”
Does Howlin’ Wolf get his own section in the museum, or does he share it with other people?
Endicott: “You can’t miss Howlin’ Wolf in our museum. He plays a very prominent part in our festival section.”
Brown: “Yeah, he’s sort of featured a couple of times as far as performing goes and then we have a few items, pictures of him. But hopefully as we grow, we’ll have some Howlin’ Wolf memorabilia and artifacts in there.”
What is different about setting up a museum in 2016, as opposed to setting one up in the ’90s or the ’80s?
Endicott: “It’s more interactive. It’s a little bit smaller footprint, probably people are interested in this area know the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or the Country Music Hall of Fame, and those are quite large places with just tons and tons of artifact and so forth. We have a little bit smaller space, but we leverage that with a lot of interactives where you can actually come in and write your own blues song and add a guitar track and a piano track to it. You’re really hands-on learning as you’re reading text and looking at great pictures, but it’s sort of the interactive thing that we hope that the kids will latch onto.”
Brown: “Being in the museum, I saw it yesterday, a lady probably in her teens, early teens, she was telling her dad how she had just recorded her own music album, her own album, and they were just sitting there listening to it, and it’s just mind-blowing.”
What do you want children to take away from this museum?
Brown: “It’s an educational experience more than it’s a field trip, because we are going to teach them not only about the blues, but the history that goes along with it. We have live performances going on that will start probably at the end of May, and all of them will be for an educational purpose. So when the kids come in, not only will they get to do the interactives, see the artifacts, but then plan on seeing a blues musician or a blues performance while they’re there.”
Endicott: “I think people will come in and they’ll say, ‘I don’t really know much about the blues, I don’t really know if I like the blues.’ Then as they see all of the influences seeped into American culture, all American music, they’re going to say, ‘In didn’t even know I loved the blues, but I loved the blues.’”
Songs In This Segment
- Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”
- Willie Dixon, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”
- Big Albert King, “Born Under a Bad Sign”
- B. B. King, “Why I Sing the Blues”
- Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lighting”
- Muddy Waters, “Mannish Boy”
- Dion Brown, founding executive director of the National Blues Museum.
- Rob Endicott, chair of the board of directors of the National Blues Museum. He tweets @robertendicott.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.