Black Music Month Special: Nashville Museums honoring Black Musicians

1967 Fender Stratocaster owned by Jimi Hendrix on view at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum (photo by Cass Teague)

1967 Fender Stratocaster owned by Jimi Hendrix on view at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.
(photo by Cass Teague)

This is our fifth and final special article this month celebrating Black Music Month. Since 1979, Black Music Month has grown from a small commemoration to national proportions with events held annually across the country. In 2009, President Barack Obama further defined June as African American Music Appreciation Month.

“The music of our Nation has always spoken to the condition of our people and reflected the diversity of our Union,” President Obama said then. “African-American musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters have made enormous contributions to our culture by capturing the hardships and aspirations of a community and reminding us of our shared values.”

Music City, USA, is Nashville, Tennessee primarily because of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This fact is uppermost in the two major museums that Nashville has, and has planned, that will feature African American musicians prominently. One is already open, and the other is well on the way to becoming a reality. The first is not dedicated specifically to Black music, but a sizable and major amount of its exhibits and holdings are about African American musicians.

As you enter the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville on the lower level of Historic Municipal Auditorium, after you leave the auditorium with the stage for small shows, you first encounter an “Edison to iPod” exhibit of musical recording players from various eras, and then go through a theater where video presentations are made.

When you enter the museum proper, the first thing that catches your attention is an entire wall dedicated to those Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the first international musical tour they took in the 1870’s, and the story of how England’s Queen Victoria gave them the honorific of having to be from a “Music City” when she heard their spirituals performed.

Throughout the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, there are massive displays and exhibits of Motown, Stax, Sigma Sound Studios, the Funk Brothers, and Jimi Hendrix, along with the Muscle Shoals and Sun Records exhibit areas and others. You will see costumes, gold records, instruments, photographs and other memorabilia from the men and women who made the music, some of them stars but many of them not household names.

The Museum has a new Grammy Gallery dedicated to the history of the Recording Academy’s awards program featuring countless Black performers and recording artists. Take to the mike on the Ray Charles Stage, enter a booth to rap with Nelly or sing with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. There are many other cool things to do in the Grammy Gallery. It is definitely a must-see and do!

Coming soon to the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum is a new area to be known as From Nashville to New York dedicated to the one and only Jimi Hendrix. It will feature newly acquired clothing, instruments, artifacts and other memorabilia celebrating Jimi’s iconic life and career from his beginnings in Nashville following his days at Ft. Campbell as part of the 101st Airborne.

NMAAM 5th Ave of the Arts Exterior  artist rendering

NMAAM 5th Ave of the Arts Exterior artist rendering

On the rise and being developed to open in the coming months in downtown Nashville is the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM). NMAAM promises to bring to Music City the level of excitement and cultural appeal that the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. has recently brought to the nation’s capital. The museum is projected to open in 2019 with 56,000 square feet dedicated to preserving the legacy and celebrating the accomplishments of the many music genres created, influenced, or inspired by African Americans

Being built in Nashville, the Museum will share the story of the American Soundtrack, integrating history and interactive technology to bring the musical heroes of the past into the present. The Museum is the place that educates, preserves, and celebrates the rich influence Black people have had on America’s music. The story that will unfold within it walls is the soundtrack of the American story. It is a unique narrative – one that has never been told before – which shares how a distinct group of people used their artistry to connect more than 50 genres, ranging from folk to hip-hop to blues to country.

The Museum project currently hosts a variety of youth and adult programs designed to inform and inspire music enthusiasts of all ages to appreciate a variety of music forms. Additionally, they host My Music Matters: A Celebration of Legends Luncheon and participate in the Black Music Honors awards program, both recognizing the contributions of African Americans to America’s culture and the music industry.

Within 56,000 square feet, museum visitors will experience the Rivers of Rhythm Pathway where they will be taken from the beginnings of American music with Southern religious and blues traditions to the most impactful hip-hop and Rhythm & Blues. It will showcase how many of today’s most renowned artists, such as Beyonce and Harry Connick, Jr., are connected to the traditions born out of the African American experience, with captivating scenes and quotes from the last century.

The NMAAM exhibition galleries have been designed with the theme “Rivers of Rhythm” in mind – to tell the story of the American Soundtrack, emphasizing the role that African Americans have played in creating this pivotal part of American culture. There is no institution or popular non-fiction publication that brings to life this connection between the people, the music and the nation. And it’s a story that must be told properly! In order to do just that, the five galleries will be developed as follows:

Nashville is Music City thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers display in Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.  (photo by Cass Teague)

Nashville is Music City thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers display in Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. (photo by Cass Teague)

The Oh Happy Day gallery will document the history and influence of gospel music – music from the African American church which arose in the early 1900s to deliver messages of faith and conviction with an emotional intensity unique to the African American religious experience. The gallery will highlight gospel’s 1940s-1960s “Golden Age” and commercial growth, detailing the impact of gospel vocal groups on secular singing in doo-wop, r&b, and soul music, as well as gospel’s key role in the music of the Civil Rights movement. And it will underscore the continued evolution of African American sacred music via gospel’s expansion across racial and global geographical lines throughout the final years of the 20th century and into the new millennium.

Closeup of plaque denoting that Nashville is Music City thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers display in Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum  photo by Cass Teague

Closeup of plaque denoting that Nashville is Music City thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers display in Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. (photo by Cass Teague)

The Crossroads gallery documents the history and influence of the blues – one of the foundational cornerstones of virtually all of African American and, in turn, American popular music spanning the last one-hundred-plus years. It will look at the humble beginnings of the blues, and will follow its development as it accompanies the movement of African Americans from rural to urban areas during the Great Migration.

The gallery will cover the introduction of “Race Records” in the 1920s, to the influence on white country music in the 1950s. The Crossroads gallery will end with an exploration of contemporary blues and its modern masters, as well as the blues’ deeply embedded role in virtually all current musical genres, including rap.

The Love Supreme gallery will chronicle and document the story of jazz from the survival of African indigenous musical traditions in North America to New Orleans and its vital role in the early development of a new form of music which, when combined with elements of ragtime, spirituals, blues and minstrel, will ultimately be dubbed “jazz.” The gallery will follow Great Migration era musicians as they move to urban centers and help establish jazz as a nationally known genre that helps soundtrack the “Roaring ‘20s,” and its impact on other musicians during this period.

The gallery will then turn to the post-War era, and the development of bebop and, later, the free jazz movements which will echo the battles against racism and for equality during the civil rights era. Finally, there will be explorations into the various styles of jazz that have contributed to its ongoing evolution and artistic growth into the 21st Century – and its place in not only American, but also global music history.

The Thriller gallery will document the history and influence of rhythm and blues, which emerges in the years following the end of World War II and its impacts on virtually all aspects of American popular music, from rock and roll, soul and funk, to disco, house, techno and hip-hop. The gallery will examine how, as marketed to mainstream audiences under the umbrella term rock and roll, r&b-based music brings about a sea of change in American popular music.

The origins and development of r&b-derived soul music of the 1960s will be detailed through the stories of Detroit’s Motown, Memphis’ Stax Records and Philadelphia International Records labels, and the important role of soul as a soundtrack for the civil rights movement.

The rise of funk, disco and the cultural marker Soul Train TV show will be highlighted in the discussion of the 1970s, leading into a look at the ‘80s and the emergence of MTV – and in particular its role in helping establish black pop as a dominant commercial genre. Finally via such varied styles as house, techno, new jack swing, and electronic dance music, the gallery will delineate the expansion of Rhythm and Blues into contemporary times.

The Started from the Bottom gallery will document the history and impact of hip hop and rap, which over the last four-plus decades have influenced not only music, but also all of popular culture, both in the U.S. and around the world. The gallery will cover the origins of hip hop and rap in inner cities in the early 1970s, and the urban decay in New York’s South Bronx. It will explore the era’s minority youth culture incorporating DJ-driven music, break dancing, graffiti art and street wear fashion into the amalgam of hip hop – and highlight the fast-talking MCs.

The gallery will detail the way in which technology helps drive hip hop through the sampling, scratching and beat box work of its early turntablist pioneers, and chart the evolution that takes the music from the underground in the late ‘70s to a national presence by the close of the 20th century, contributing to Time Magazine’s declaration that the U.S. has become a “Hip Hop Nation.” The gallery will also examine the way in which activist rap and hip hop artists’ messages of speaking truth to power have resonated with the unempowered and disenfranchised – not only in the U.S., but globally as well.