‘St. Louis Sound’ documents city’s vibrant musical history

Gateway Arch photo by Brittany Moore/Pexels

NANCY KRANZBERG, Special to the Jewish Light

There’s an incredible book entitled “St. Louis Sound” written by Steve Pick and Amanda Doyle, which traces the history of music in our city from the Native American Mississippian culture and early French settlers to the present and now. The Missouri History Museum has an exhibition with the same title, “St. Louis Sound,” which runs through Jan. 22.

Andrew Wanko, the curator of the exhibition, gives Pick and Doyle lots of credit for their help and encouragement in this monumental show. Wanko says that the exhibition includes exciting stories of the region’s international stars, unsung legends, local venues, radio stations and more. There are nearly 200 artifacts, plus media, touchables and other interactives and there are listenable song selections for every artist covered in the gallery.

Wanko says, St. Louis just can’t stay quiet. The region has produced legends who are on a first name basis worldwide, like Ike and Tina, Miles, Chuck and Nelly. It’s been home to the “Velvet Bulldozer” Albert King, the “Black Venus” Josephine Baker and the original “king” of pop music, Scott Joplin. And don’t forget world-class songwriters like John Hartford, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Willie Mae Ford Smith. Few cities anywhere can claim so many leading lights in such a wide range of styles. He goes on to say, “But what about Dr. Jockenstein, the East St Louis DJ who turned school kids into rap masters? What about St. Louis’s all-female punk band, The Welders? What about ‘howling Hillbillies’ like Cousin Emmy and Pappy Cheshire? What about Bob Reuter, Victoria Spivey, Gabriel and Peetie Weatherstraw? These are voices you might not have heard, but you need to.”

I’m old and gray and don’t get to the concerts like I once did, but with the media, one can’t miss music in this city. I just read about St. Louis Music Park, which was ready to debut in May 2020 with a concert by Keesha and Big Freedia, but the pandemic had other plans. More than a year later, the concert venue at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights made its grand opening with Blackberry Smoke, Jason Mraz and Brothers Osborne.

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Music at the Intersection will take over Grand Center for three days and nights Sept. 10-12. More than 60 acts, including nationally known entertainers such as Lalah Hathaway, Gregory Porter and Roy Ayers, will appear at the Fox Theatre, The Big Top, The Sheldon, Jazz St Louis, the Open Air Tent at The Dark Room and the Grandel Theater.

And the clubs are up and going strong. Joe Edwards’ Pageant and Delmar Hall are up and running. Earlier this summer, Michael Staenberg’s new music venue The Factory opened in Chesterfield, holding up to 3,000 concert-goers. 

“St. Louis is a legendary music city and that music definitely became a huge part of my life,” said Edwards. “Because of our history as a major crossroads during both westward migration (in the early days of the 19th century) and the Great Migration from south to north, people from all races and backgrounds intersected here and were exposed to many different types of music and literature. This cultural collision resulted in an explosion of creativity that continues to this day.”

The Muny, with its beautiful new face lift, wowed audiences this summer with its abbreviated season. Stages St. Louis moved into the new Ross Family Theatre at the stunning Kirkwood Performing Arts Center and now has live music. And Scott Miller is presenting a fresh new season of New Line Theatre at the Marcelle in Grand Center.

And I haven’t mentioned our history of folk music, or choral and symphonic music, of which we are blessed with top-of-the-line venues and groups.

We’ve got it all right here at our fingertips in our great music city of St. Louis.

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.