Tune Into St. Louis' Unrivaled Music History on Your Next Visit
I'm studying a colorful mural in the gallery when I realize something remarkable—I'm dancing in public! Toe-tapping, head-bopping, shoulder-shimmying, you name it, my soul is feeling it. Headphones cupped over my ears, I've been inside the Missouri History Museum for all of five minutes, scanned the QR code at the exhibit's first display, hit play, and can't stop, won't stop. Crank the volume on Chuck Berry's lively megahit "Maybellene" and I dare you not to bust a move too.
On view until January 22, 2023, at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, St. Louis Sound celebrates the city's mark on popular music, from ragtime to rock and roll to rap. Free to the public, the nearly 200-artifact, 6,000-square-foot exhibit showcases local music icons from the late 1800s to the present, innovative soundscapes, and deeper cuts, all of which ebb and flow like that of an eclectic and meticulously curated mixtape. (Related: Don't miss the Sony Walkman cassette player in an area called How You Listened.)
Andrew Wanko, public historian for the museum, explains that St. Louis has had an unsung global impact on what we listen to today. "A local jazz expert once told me that St. Louis belongs on the Mount Rushmore of musical cities," Wanko says. "And after everything I've learned putting St. Louis Sound together, I second that."
With a roster that includes Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, Nelly, "Velvet Bulldozer" Albert King, "Black Venus" Josephine Baker, and the original "King of Ragtime" Scott Joplin, the city could go pound for pound (or should we say, note for note) with just about anywhere. Lest we forget East St. Louis-raised Miles Davis, flugelhorn pioneer Clark Terry, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who formed the Grammy-winning indie band here (not in Chicago). "I find it difficult to imagine what American music would sound like without half those names," Wanko says.
The irony of the exhibit's title is that St. Louis can't be defined by a single sound because it sits at the cross section of America—halfway north, halfway south, the Gateway to the West, the nation's last old Eastern city—and at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In the early 20th century, thousands of African Americans moved north during the Great Migration, importing a mishmash of styles and ideas that birthed sounds never heard before. Take famed composer W.C. Handy. He arrived in St. Louis in 1892 and dreamed of making it big—instead, he wound up penniless and sleeping on the riverfront. Two decades later, his song "St. Louis Blues" filled the airwaves. Inspired by his six-month tenure on the city's streets, it's now heralded as one of the first blues tunes to succeed as a pop song. (St. Louis' professional hockey team is even named after the track.) Today, the National Blues Museum stands where Handy once daydreamed in downtown.
Pick a musical genre (any, really) and St. Louis is sure to strike a chord. In the Grand Center Arts District alone, I've taken in riveting classical at Powell Hall; wined and dined at the nostalgic Jazz St. Louis; and watched Jake Shimabukuro, arguably the world's best ukulele player, at The Sheldon, a historic venue known for its perfect acoustics—all within a four-block radius.
As a native St. Louisan, I have always known our musical roots were deep, but St. Louis Sound cranks that knowledge up a notch. After nearly two hours in the exhibit, I stop to watch Nelly's "Country Grammar" video, which plays on loop on an oversized screen near the exit. A newfound respect for both my roots and my hometown's legacy washes over me. With a pep in my step, I'm now dancing and singing my way out the door: "I'm from the Lou, and I'm proud."
What to Do
In The Delmar Loop neighborhood, stroll with legends at the St. Louis Walk Hall of Fame, where brass stars honor musicians such as Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, and Nelly. On the same sidewalk, a bronze Chuck Berry statue pays homage to the Father of Rock and Roll. Across the street, Vintage Vinyl is one of the best record shops in America. (Mumford & Sons even played a pop-up concert there in 2016.) See a show in Grand Center Arts District, a hot spot for music lovers. Grammy-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis calls the intimate and classy Jazz St. Louis, one of the country's top jazz venues. Massive Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra—the nation's second-oldest—is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and reminiscent of a classic European auditorium. The National Blues Museum in downtown highlights the genre's impact on American culture. Learn about its origins in the fields and farms of the Deep South and record your own blues track in an interactive exhibit.
Related: Top Things to Do in St. Louis
Where to Eat
Next to Forest Park, fuel up on pastries—like crisp-but-delicate pain au chocolat—and single-origin espresso at Comet Coffee. When the clock strikes five, head to Lazy Tiger in the hip Central West End neighborhood (a five-minute drive east of the Missouri History Museum). Sample a mezcal-serrano margarita or the bittersweet St. Louis Catholic, a riff on a Manhattan, with green chile vermouth and raicilla (an agave spirit). Fill up on coconut-fried shrimp and Nashville hot-fried oysters from adjoining sister restaurant Yellowbelly as you happy-hour. On the edge of the neighborhood, City Foundry is St. Louis' first food hall (and hosts live entertainment on weekends). Sixteen vendors span diverse cuisines, including Indian, Afro-Caribbean and Argentinian.
For live music with a side of memorabilia, grab a local microbrew and a burger in the Delmar Loop at Blueberry Hill, a landmark that hosted more than 200 Chuck Berry concerts. Other notable acts that have graced its Duck Room stage: Ed Sheeran, John Legend and The Lumineers.
Where to Stay
In downtown's Garment District, The Last Hotel is a short stroll from the Blues Museum and occupies the early 20th-century digs of the International Shoe Company. Look out for period details like original marble, terrazzo and hardwood floors, plus vintage lighting in the guest rooms. Or stay in The Delmar Loop at Moonrise Hotel, with easy access to two premier music venues, The Pageant and Delmar Hall. After a show, have a nightcap at the hotel's Rooftop Garden Bar, home to the world's largest rotating artificial moon.
Related: Two-Day Getaway to St. Louis
Hitting the road? Jam out to the Missouri History Museum's Spotify playlist of Missouri artists.