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