October 4, 2023

If you want to trace the roots of American pop music, you have to start with the fact that Europeans brought enslaved Africans through the Middle Passage. After emancipation, the sounds of Africa and field hollers and working anthems from the American South spread across the country and transformed into new forms: blues in Mississippi, jazz in New Orleans and later house music in Chicago and hip-hop in the Bronx.

Historians, anthologies and exhibitions have followed this path before, but an entire museum has so far not been dedicated to demonstrating and celebrating how black artists have fundamentally shaped American music. Last Saturday the National Museum of African American Music opened in Nashville with six interactive sections covering 50 music genres with a focus on gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

The idea for the museum, which is 22 years old and has $ 60 million in the making, came from Francis Guess, a civil rights activist and business leader in Nashville, who shared it with TB Boyd III, then President and CEO of RH Boyd, Publishing Co. shared. In the beginning, they met with local executives for monthly meetings in their living rooms to spark enthusiasm and seed capital.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce conducted a feasibility study in 2002 for a museum encompassing African American culture. and in 2011 the focus was limited to music. With the support of the city and many community members, 56,000 square feet of the Fifth & Broadway complex in downtown Nashville was carved out for the facility. (The museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays in February. Timed tickets are required for a limited number of masked visitors.)

Steven Lewis, one of the museum’s curators, said the galleries want to showcase the living tradition of black music. The more than 1,500 artifacts illustrate the experiences of everyday people, not just famous ones. (Although the collection includes articles by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, George Clinton, Whitney Houston, and TLC.) They also show the music’s global reach.

“Look at the young white British musicians from the 1960s, like the Beatles,” Lewis said in an interview. “You heard Muddy Waters and Son House. They found something in this music that attracted them. Check out Louis Armstrong’s tours of West Africa – there was something connecting them. The African American experience expressed in music is a compelling distillation of experiences of oppression, struggle, and triumph that people around the world may relate to in different ways. “

Lewis, a jazz saxophonist and ethnomusicologist, specifically examined the impact of the great migration on the global spread of black music. During that period between 1916 and 1970, more than six million African Americans quit farming in the south to create jobs in the north and west. With the industrialization of America came the industrialization of music – in the blues artists like Muddy Waters switched from acoustic to electric guitar playing.

The section of the museum dedicated to that moment, called “Crossroads,” displays artifacts including an Illinois Central Railroad lantern, guitar and handwritten lyrics by BB King, a suit and shoes by Bobby “Blue” Bland, and a 78 by Black Swan Records, the first major African American blues and jazz record label.

Crossroads also seeks to fuse the genre with the present by working with living musicians like blues guitarist Kevin Moore aka Keb ‘Mo’, a Nashville local who has been involved with the museum since its conception.

“Nashville needs this museum because it’s a musical mecca,” said Moore, who is a national chairman for the museum. “The average person only thinks of country music,” he added, noting that the city’s nickname “Music City” is said to come from the black vocal group “Fisk Jubilee Singers,” which Queen Victoria struck with a performance.

One of Moore’s first red Silvertone electric guitars, an instrument that survived the 2010 Nashville flood and that Moore sees as evidence of the city’s resilience, is also on display. “Some of the paint has peeled off and is a little damaged but is still playable,” he said. “It’s important to me because the Sears Silvertone guitar is part of my music history. I got this when I was 17 and it’s one of the closest and most expensive to me. “

When developing “Crossroads” and the other galleries, the curators attached particular importance to the contributions of women. “Women are the ones who started this genre,” said singer Shemekia Copeland, adding that she fell in love with the blues as a child because the lyrics harness the power and struggles of blacks. “The 1920s was all about female entertainment and the musicians were in the background. That later changed when it became more guitar driven. “

Copeland believes a museum devoted to the tremendous influence of African American people on music is vital. “The music is the people,” she said. “That’s how we’ve always expressed ourselves. If the world ended and someone found records and listened, that would tell the story of what happened to us culturally. “