Visitors explore the artifact-driven exhibits at the National Blues Museum.

Experience Blues Music, Then and Now, at the National Blues Museum

Monday November 20, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Blues music is living history, and the National Blues Museum in St. Louis aims to preserve and celebrate it.

“The National Blues Museum is one of St. Louis’ cultural gems,” president and CEO Erin Simon says. “Since its inception in the Deep South, the blues has been the bedrock for virtually all popular music in the U.S., and the museum emphasizes its impact through artifact-driven exhibits and technology-driven experiences.”

Hands-on activities also give the museum a cool factor. In one room, visitors can learn to play simple musical instruments such as the washboard and the spoons to jam with the St. Louis-based jug band River City Revelers. In another section, Matchbox Mix allows you to compare different versions of the same song – think “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” by Blind Willie Nelson (1927), Nina Simone (1969) and Led Zeppelin (1976).

The National Blues Museum will even teach you how to write your own blues song, starting with lyrics in AAB form. Need inspiration? Remember that the blues expresses emotional, heartfelt truths about life, which speak to generations of listeners from all corners of society.

Take B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” In the classic song, the blues legend sings “The thrill is gone, the thrill is gone away (A line, measures 1 to 4); The thrill is gone baby, the thrill is gone away (A line, measures 5 to 8); You know you done me wrong baby, and you’ll be sorry someday (B line, measures 9 to 12).” Once you find the words, you can add piano, harmonica and guitar tracks, mix the song and save it.

Visitors write their own blues song at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis.
Photo by Gregg Goldman

In terms of history, the National Blues Museum follows a chronological format. From the birth of the blues to the First Great Migration to the blues going electric to ZZ Top bringing it to MTV – and everything in between – this is one journey that you won’t soon forget.

Along the way, stop to learn about Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who introduced blues songs into traveling African American stage shows at the dawn of the 20th century. A musical matriarch whose popularity inspired numerous female singers of the time, the earthy vocalist deservedly acquired the title “Mother of the Blues.”

Bessie Smith, a contemporary of Ma Rainey, receives the spotlight in a short film of her rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” the most popular blues song in history, which was published in 1914 and immortalized by performers, including Smith, Louis Armstrong, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. The film – one of the most fascinating attractions at the National Blues Museum – is the only available footage of the vocal powerhouse.

You might also find it interesting that the blues informed the music of California’s counterculture. In the mid- to late-1960s, The Golden State became the focal point of a youth-driven counterculture underscored by adventurous new rock music, which owes much of its structure – and intensity – to the blues. Groups such as the Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, Santana and Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin introduced psychedelic blues-rock, which quickly exploded on stages in the U.S. and Europe.

A singular St. Louis story coincides with one of the most eye-catching exhibits in the museum. Jim McClaren, a native of the Gateway City, was so moved by Paul Butterfield’s performance on Muddy Waters’ 1969 album, Fathers and Sons, that he dedicated his career to the harmonica. Skillfully blending techniques, McClaren has worked his way through 900-plus harmonicas – all of which are displayed in the museum! – and he’s still going.

This is only a fraction of the stories that you can absorb at the National Blues Museum, which also boasts rotating special exhibitions. Queen of the Blues, a current exhibition, will feature illustrations of the first women to influence the blues. In the original show, you can see drawings of Bessie Smith, Koko Taylor and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, among others, created by a local artist.

“When people leave the museum, I hope that they have a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of the blues,” Simon says. “The blues comes from Black creative genius. It’s a uniquely American art form, and it deserves all the praise and recognition that we can give it.”

The National Blues Museum has artifact-driven exhibits, which tell the story of blues music.
Photo by Gregg Goldman

The blues is a feeling as much as a form. With distinct roots in centuries-old African American culture, it has always been about those feelings that the word conjures: sadness, solitude, helplessness. By giving voice to those feelings, the blues helps both performers and listeners not only escape their troubles, but also rise above them.

“Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle,” Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, says. “Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”

Despite dramatic technological changes in the way that artists make music and the way that listeners experience it, the blues has endured. A respect-the-past, embrace-the-present outlook has even sparked revivals of electric and acoustic blues from previous eras, resulting in an eclectic modern blues scene that continues as a creatively and commercially thriving entity steeped in traditions – traditions that are constantly being rediscovered and renewed thanks to institutions such as the National Blues Museum.

A band performs at the National Blues Museum.
Photo courtesy of the National Blues Museum

For a firsthand experience of the blues’ indefatigable spirit, which echoes through rock, rap, country, jazz, pop and folk, catch a live performance while you’re in St. Louis. The region is brimming with music venues, from intimate bars such as Hammerstone’s in Soulard to monumental stadiums such as The Dome at America’s Center.

The National Blues Museum doubles as a concert venue, hosting performances indoors and outdoors throughout the year. You can hear any genre that comes out of Black heritage music, including blues, R&B, soul and funk. The museum also puts on curated concert series that lean into a specific artist such as Koko Taylor.

“I’m a huge fan of Koko Taylor,” Simon says. “She has a big voice, and I like most of her music. When I’m in my car, I also listen to a lot of modern blues music. I love Toronzo Cannon and Shemekia Copeland [who was among the first acts to take the stage at City Winery St. Louis when it opened in March 2023].”

Another historic venue in downtown St. Louis, BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups stokes the demand for blues music with its calendar of live performances. Its neighbors – Broadway Oyster Bar, The Garage STL and The Honky Tonk STL – also have dynamic lineups where you can hear the influences of the blues as you tear up the dance floor.

“If you love music, you’ll love St. Louis,” Simon says, “and the National Blues Museum is one of the best places to learn about the art form.”