Road Trip: Finding America’s Musical Roots In The Midwest

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All photos courtesy of Josephine Matyas

In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its centenary, and Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones hit the road to explore some of America’s best national parks, thermal hot springs, and regional food and music. Here, the music archive of the Midwest.

America’s great gift to the world has to be the music of the transplanted African slaves, who brought with them a sensibility and a sound that infused itself into the work routines and celebratory rituals that—in the fullness of time—formed what is called the blues and its little brother jazz.

It’s easy to lose track of the origination of these genres, easy to forget how they were born of extreme suffering suffused with a quest for transcendence. But you can capture a sense of this by visiting the wonderful monuments to this legacy scattered across the lower 48. All across our travels through the Midwest, music lovers and archivists have commissioned and lovingly curated marvellous tributes to blues, rock and roll, jazz and the people who created them.


The musical exploration of our trip began in Detroit at the Motown Museum, Hitsville U.S.A. This is the spot where songwriter and businessman Berry Gordy set up shop in 1967, fashioning a crude recording studio out of his garage, creating Tamla Records.

Gordy’s approach was to establish separate properties specializing in the various aspects of generating and marketing the music. Motown occupied seven different houses: one for teaching harmony singing, another for dance, one for makeup and deportment, another for finance, etc. Today the main house—the Motown Museum—is a shrine to the magic of The Funk Brothers, the house band of Detroit-based jazz musicians who laid down the backing tracks for legends like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and many more.

Until 1972, when Gordy moved the whole operation to Los Angeles, this was ground zero for the recording and production of hundreds of Top 10 hits—songs that filled the airwaves across North America and influenced a generation of young men in the U.K., including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and countless others.

If you’ve ever grooved to “My Girl,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Baby Love,” or “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” it all comes back in the house’s Snake Pit recording studio—nicknamed for the microphone cables that hang from the ceiling. Soak in that vibe and gaze upon the still-intact recording equipment from the early 20th century. This is where the magic happened; where those amazing songs took form.

The museum is more than just the recording studio; it was the Gordy family home and the first office for what would become the Motown empire. Walls are adorned with promotional material from the early 60s, gold records, instruments from those wonderful sessions, lots of photographs of the stars who recorded at Motown and an early—and very primitive—reverb chamber that was cut out of the ceiling of one room. Very cool.

Next: A museum of instruments…

A museum of instruments
On to South Dakota, where the billboard on the outskirts of Vermillion says Les Paul, More Stradivarius. Every musician immediately gets the play on words. In a lovely building on the campus of the University of South Dakota, we found the mind-blowing National Music Museum (NMM). The museum covers the waterfront of instruments dating back to the European Middle Ages, including the Amati “King” cello, thought to be the oldest in the world.

The NMM bills itself as among the largest and most important collections of historical instruments in the world—and it’s not overselling. An exhibition called “Great American Guitars” features finely handcrafted guitars, banjos and mandolins plus a re-creation of a workshop of American luthiers. This is a museum to luxuriate in; a tour through the complex, contradictory and complementary social forces of art and commerce as instrument designers compete for the love and affection of players by pushing the sonic and aesthetic qualities of their designs to the very limits of what their materials will tolerate. In the process, they created pieces of high art that sound and play beautifully. The NMM is a serious collection.

American Jazz
On the return swing east, we stopped in Kansas City at the American Museum of Jazz in the historic inner city neighborhood of 18th & Vine. In its golden age, Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz, spawning—among other iconic figures—the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner, Bennie Moten and the pianist and bandleader Count Basie.

During Prohibition (1919-33), Kansas City was a cauldron of corruption and graft, described by one jazz writer as “a hospitable environment to most of the social vices.” Live music oiled these neighborhoods, giving rise to Bebop, a jazz style characterized by hot tempos (north of 300 beats per minute), complex chord changes, frequent key changes, instrumental virtuosity—aka “chops”—and improvisation with only occasional references to melody. “Cutting contests”—intense competition between soloists—were a feature of the KC jazz scene, a dynamic that pushed players to more exhilarating improvisational altitudes.

So, the 18th & Vine neighborhood is a natural home for exhibits celebrating Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. There are numerous interactive exhibits for people who don’t know how jazz differs from other musical genres, including the roles and sounds of traditional jazz instruments: saxophone, horns, bass, drums, piano and guitar. A highlight with a Canadian connection is the plastic saxophone that Charlie Parker played on an amazing 1953 Toronto Massey Hall gig with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach. By the grace of the jazz gods, the CBC was there and recorded the entire thing. To this day it stands out as one of the greatest live jazz recordings ever captured.

Next: It’s only rock n’ roll…


Rock and Roll
Homeward bound, one of our last stops was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. It’s by far the biggest museum we’ve seen—more than 100,000 items of which only one-tenth are on display at any time—and because even if you hate rock and roll you were influenced by it. It’s nearly exhaustive. The curators suggest 2.5 hours, but if you’re a music lover and want to do it justice, give yourself twice that amount.

Covering six floors, the museum leads the visitor from the very earliest days of blues—or “race music”—through the business of recording and selling, the promotion of would-be stars and superstars (including an excellent section devoted to Elvis) and onto thousands of instruments, costumes and various other accoutrement associated with the devil’s music.

Most interesting for those who lived through it, are displays on the politics that enframed and enflamed the passions of the 1960s and 70s when rock and roll was understood to be an overtly political form of opposition to a corrupt status quo that was prosecuting illegitimate wars and suppressing legitimate political opposition at home (mostly in the United States). To take one example: in a glass display case is the white Fender Stratocaster on which Jimi Hendrix played the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the closing morning of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair of August 1969—a performance that somehow captured the zeitgeist of the closing decade and set off a firestorm of criticism and showers of praise.

Must watch: Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, an excellent documentary film.

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