Country music’s hometown of Nashville is also the home to a museum that celebrates the wide-ranging musical heritage of African Americans
This column is by Tommy Barton, retired editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.
NASHVILLE – This town’s reputation as Music City USA has been freshly burnished by the recent opening of the National Museum of African American Music, an attraction that all music lovers should find fun, informative and uplifting.
The 56,000-square-foot museum, located in the heart of downtown, contains more than 1,500 artifacts, objects, memorabilia and clothing from Black artists. But this is not your grandpa’s museum where you look but don’t touch – this is a hands-on attraction where you handpick music for your headphones, write your own blues song, perform your own jazz tune, sing in a gospel choir, bust a move on a dance floor, and produce your own hip-hop beat (for what it’s worth, my blues song was about a poor sharecropper who got jilted by his woman at a dusty Mississippi train station.)
If I can do it anyone can.
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According to a museum news release, this is the only museum in the nation dedicated to preserving and celebrating the many music genres created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans. Many of the musical roots are traced to hymns of slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many white artists picked up on this groove and added their own stylistic touches to make it their own.
Such as Elvis. He wasn’t the first to make “Hound Dog” a hit. That distinction belongs to Big Momma Thornton, an American blues legend, who is among the many featured in the museum. But Elvis Presleyfied it.
This unique museum has been in the works for at least 20 years. It is the brainchild of two of Nashville’s civil rights and business leaders. It’s in a prominent location at 5th Street and Broadway just across the street from the historic Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of American country music. The juxtaposition is a sweet one, and Nashville should be proud of this important civic addition to its cultural scene.
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Visitors are first directed into the museum’s “Roots Theater” for a brief film about the traditions of West and Central African cultures before slavery. From there, they are directed to the “Rivers of Rhythm Pathways” gallery, which is the central spine of the museum experience. It features touch panel interactive screens and an animated timeline that links American history and music history.
An adjoining “Wade in the Water” gallery explores African hymns. The gallery connects African cultures’ religious music and later African American spirituals and hymns, highlighting Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar, Thomas A. Dorsey, and others.
“Gospel music was different from the approved hymns and spirituals” Dorsey, a pioneering composer, once said. It fused blues harmonies and jazz rhythms with the spirit of Pentecostal and Holiness churches, creating what would become known as “gospel.” Not surprisingly, many ministers and others believed gospel music was “wrong,” Dorsey once said.
But the great Mahalia Jackson spoke for many when she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope.”
The “Love Supreme” gallery dives deep into the history of jazz and explores the careers of legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and others. One of Ella’s fur coats hangs on display.
The “One Nation Under a Groove” gallery relays Motown Records and Soul Train’s stories, while “The Message” gallery explains the origins of hip hop.
My personal favorite was the blues gallery. Explaining the blues is damn-near impossible, but theologian James Cone came close when he said, “The blues are not art for art’s sake, music for music’s sake. They are a way of life, a lifestyle of the black community; and they came into being to give expression to black identity and the will for survival.” All people share that will.
This gallery showcased my favorite display – a legless electric keyboard mounted on an old ironing board. This distinctive instrument belonged to Samuel Moore, also known as Ironing Board Sam, an electric blues keyboardist, singer and songwriter.
Moore, 81, was born in 1939 in Rock Hill, S.C., a sharecropper’s son. He began gigging locally on the piano and organ when he was 14, then did sporadic touring around the South. He appeared on the R&B TV program, “Night Train,” and played in clubs in Nashville. At one club, he was joined by a young house band guitarist named Jimi, as in Hendrix. Nashville has always been more than country music.
Indeed, James Brown was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1979 at the invitation of country star Porter Wagner. Rolling Stone magazine would go on to quote Brown as saying that he loved country music since he was a kid growing up in Augusta. He astutely called country music “the white man’s blues.”
While Nashville has long been known as a hotbed of country music, a number of Black artists now call Nashville their home. They include Grammy-winning artists India.Arie (a SCAD graduate), CeCe Winans, Keb’ Mo and Darius Rucker. Each is actively involved with the museum.
Americans of all races, cultures and backgrounds can appreciate good music, which serves as food for the soul and mind. It pulls us together, helps us get through our days and gives us hope for a better tomorrow. Making beautiful music together is part of the fabric of America. This one-of-a-kind museum celebrates our rich heritage as one nation under groove. It’s highly worth a visit.
Tom Barton is a blogger at iamnotoldnews.com
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