Music museums you don’t want to miss

We love museums and exhibits curated with care. We never pass up a chance to visit one – and some of them are worth more time than we can give them. In no particular order, some of the best we’ve seen include:

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (Cleveland, Ohio)  Craig's confession: Born in 1957, I am a product of the rock and roll era. My life was irrevocably altered one Christmas morning in the early 1960s by the arrival in my life of The Beatles LP, Long Tall Sally, and Paul McCartney’s “1,2,3,4!” count into I Saw Her Standing There. So I cannot pretend anything but adoration for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. 

But – and here’s the interesting thing -- even if you hated rock and roll and everything about it, you were affected by its world changing capacity to either reinterpret everything happening around it or become the virtual soundtrack for everything happening contemporaneously with it. Rock musicians – at least some of the more enduring – turned out to be the antennas of their generation, like artists have always been, with their senses finely tuned to what was coming down the historical racetrack of world society. And that is only one way to approach the Hall of Fame; as itself an artifact in the making of a century. The museum claims over 100,000 items, of which only 10% are on display at any time, including the guitar on which John Lennon wrote and recorded Give Peace A Chance, side by side with his hand-scribbled lyrics; 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 caught the zeitgeist of the closing decade and set off a firestorm of criticism and showers of praise), a loving examination of Elvis Presley who sanitized black – or race – music for white audiences; a deep examination of The Beatles including footage of their studio time together; the double-neck Gibson guitar on which Don Felder recorded Hotel California and a million other bits of memorabilia, instruments, artifacts and historically potent exhibits of the rock and roll era. This is not a destination to be hurried through, even if you hate rock and roll, but to be taken seriously and – if you’re like me – luxuriated in. Give yourself four or five hours. Be prepared to eat and rest between the six floors: don’t be reluctant to return to exhibits to linger over them longer. Read all the curator’s notes and take time to ponder how this world shaping force shaped you.


Motown Museum/Hitsville U.S.A.  (Detroit, Michigan)  If you’re a product of 20th-century popular music, like me, you can sing without prompting a dozen different Motown songs on cue. You may not know much about the Funk Brothers — the guys who played on all those records — but you can correct that with a viewing of Standing In The Shadows of Motown. Then you should transport yourself as quickly as possible to Detroit — to Hitsville U.S.A. — i.e., the mother house wherein resided the fabulous “Snake Pit” where all those magnificent tracks were recorded. The Snake Pit — so named because of the microphones hanging from the ceiling — was a renovated, soundproofed garage on the back of the house where the Funk Brothers gathered, often late at night following their own downtown jazz gigs, to make history. The house was also the home of Berry Gordy and his family, as well as the first business office from which they packaged and shipped records to radio stations all over the U.S. That house — now a museum — preserves much of the history and magic of Motown, including numerous photographs, instruments, costumes and a detailed explanation of how the Motown empire grew to accommodate the demands of marketing popular music: one house for make up instruction; one house to teach music theory; another house to teach vocal harmony; another house for dance instruction and so forth. But to really savour the moment, you have to stand where James Jamerson and the Brothers — plus Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, The Supremes, et. al. — stood while recording those hits. It’s not a big space: the grand piano consumes almost 20% of it. But there’s Earl Van Dyke’s Hammond B3 organ and Leslie and Jack Ashton’s Vibraphones. The control room is intact, there’s even reels of tape on the old Ampex recorders. And here’s an interesting factoid: Paul McCartney paid for the reconstruction of the interior mechanism of the Steinway Grand piano but Berry Gordy insisted the exterior remain untouched. P8318774

National Music Museum (Vermillion, South Dakota)  There's a sign as you drive into the small college town of South Dakota: More Stradivarius, Les Paul. Musicians get it instantly. On this leafy campus of the University of South Dakota – a long way from anywhere – there resides an amazing museum of musical instruments. it's beautifully curated, featuring more than 15,000 musical instruments – some of them very old – and an advanced tutorial on the intersection of commerce, craft and art the likes of which you are not likely to get anywhere else. For that reason, it’s worth it to drive through the miles of alfalfa, corn and soybeans, to this corner of South Dakota. The National Music Museum (NMM) must rank as one of the great institutions of its kind in the world. Its exhibits encompass 500 years of culture running the gamut from priceless medieval Italian violins to early 20th-century Les Paul electric guitars. There are Stevie Wonder's harmonica, Johnny Cash's Martin D-28, Elvis's guitar picks, B.B. King's black Gibson ES-355 Lucille and the trumpet used in The Beatles film, Sgt. Pepper's, among dozens of other "celebrity" pieces.


The world-class collection of American, European and non-Western instruments from all cultures and historical periods offer a window into the business of creating beautiful things for the purpose of making art: an intersection that is easy to lose track of once we have the finished product in our hands. But what the NMM brings home to the close observer is that every musical instrument is the product of thousands of prior steps, choices, design decisions and failures before ‘getting it right.’ But even that’s only another step in the process because getting it right only guarantees the success of one instrument – and if you’re a builder of hand-crafted instruments you’ve not only got to recover your costs for the instrument on your bench, but earn enough from its sale to produce the next one which will incorporate the lessons learned from the current one. 

And so we gaze into the exquisite craftsmanship that produced pocket-sized violins for dance teachers – sample the music, demo the steps, return the violin to the coat pocket and dance with the client. We look with amazement upon the brass creations of C.G. Conn Ltd of Elkhart, Indiana – the manufacturer of millions of high school trumpets, trombones, tubas and saxophones – that made their way to the lips of band students in every corner of North America and Europe. Only by studying these exhibits does it become clear how the imperatives of enterprise intersected with those of design and the quest for beauty. We see instruments – in the Conn collection – that attempted to capture more than one timbre on a single instrument, multiple bells operated by different valve arrangements as Conn and his designers innovated to create new sounds for orchestras. The NMM has a display of hand-made guitars — D'Angelico, D’Aquisto and Stromberg-Voisinet — that will make guitarists weep for the synergy of art, design, engineering and love for the instrument.

To be sure, the mass manufacture of musical instruments put a guitar and/or piano in every home at one point – or nearly every home in some neighbourhoods — while rock and roll would not have happened without the mass manufacture of electric guitars. And there is much to celebrate in the democratization of music making. But to really appreciate how the harpsichord birthed the piano, you need to study the transition between forms and follow the nuances in design . . . which requires you to visit the NMM. 

The NMM is laid out over nine galleries on three floors in a university building on the campus. If you’re a musician – it does not matter what instrument you play – give yourself extra time.


B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center (Indianola, Mississippi) is built onto an old cotton gin where young Riley (that’s his real name) ran a tractor as a boy before evolving into Blues Boy King … and the rest is history. Before his passing in 2015, B.B. King made substantial contributions from his personal archives, and it hugely enhances the experience for the visitor. Indianola is not “on the beaten path” – it’s between Greenwood and Greenville in the Delta – but it’s well worth any detour. We rate this a three-hour museum: it’s text and artifact heavy, including his personal papers, video clips and even his 60s-era tour bus. Musicians will want an extra hour to salivate over the guitars. PB137649edOtis Redding Foundation and Mini Museum (Macon, Georgia) keeps burning the flame of this foundational soul singer. The small streetfront exhibit includes memorabilia and newspaper clippings but is the front end for an educational foundation created before Reddings’ 1967 death (age 26) and is lovingly managed by his widow Ms. Zelma Redding and daughter Karla. Look for a big event in the autumn of 2016 to commemorate his legacy on what would have been his 75th birthday. Take a walk to the bronze statue of Redding at Gateway Park in Macon. musicmuseums1 STAX Museum of American Soul Music (Memphis, Tennessee) is another text and exhibit-heavy museum with a story that combines tragedy and triumph. Booker T. & the M.G.s were the STAX house band, providing tracks and arrangements for soul and R&B giants including Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Isaac Hayes (also one of the in-house writers), The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett and countless others. You’ll get a lot more out of this experience if you familiarize yourself with the history of Memphis at the height of the STAX years, which is just before the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. PB168067ed Sun Studio (Memphis, Tennessee) lays credible claim to being the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Give him his due, Sam Phillips had an ear for music and knew talent when it walked through his door. Among the names associated with this modest little recording studio are Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, Johnny Cash and The King himself, Elvis Presley. This venue is considerably smaller than the STAX Museum, but you too may want to get down on your knees and kiss the X on the floor where, legend has it, Elvis recorded Hound Dog. Bob Dylan did. Purists may want to fondle the guitar amplifier that fell off the roof of the truck – damaging the speaker cone – that became the sound of Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 … the very first rock ’n’ roll song, depending on who you talk to. The Earl Scruggs Center (Shelby, North Carolina) invites you to leave your banjo jokes at the door and open your mind to the story of this hardscrabble sharecropper’s son who became an international sensation. Scruggs did for the banjo what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar: he showed what was possible. The Center, which opened in early 2014, is a state of the art tribute to the man, his art and the history of Cleveland County. The displays are rich with archives that span several generations, including original instruments, video clips, interviews and very engaging interactive displays (e.g. you can learn to play the banjo through a touchscreen or call up photographic images of musicians from the times). If, at the end of a couple of hours touring this excellent and well organized history of Scruggs’ life, you still feel the need to crack wise with the banjo jokes, you’ll at least have seen the full majesty of the other side. Highly recommended: but give yourself enough time to fully explore all the exhibits and spend some time with the banjo “petting zoo.” musicmuseums6 Alabama Music Hall of Fame (Tuscumbia/Muscle Shoals, Alabama) will surprise you – as it did us – with the richness of its musical legacy. To take just a few of the better known names; Hank Williams, Lionel Richie, Martha Reeves, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Nat King Cole, Emmylou Harris and Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers. Turns out that a lot of great 20th century music – blues, rock, gospel, country, soul, funk and pop – came out of Alabama. In addition to the Hall of Fame portraits there’s a wealth of musical artifacts including early sheet music belonging to W.C. Handy (Father of the Blues) and the Southern Star tour bus belonging to the supergroup, Alabama. Martin Guitar Factory (Nazareth, Pennsylvania). If you’ve listened to popular music in the last 100 years, you’ve heard a Martin guitar. Probably thousands of them. It is the most widely recorded guitar sound in the world because – for many millions of guitar purists and players – it is THE sound of an acoustic guitar. So you’ll love touring the Martin Guitar Factory in Nazareth, PA, where thousands of these beautiful instruments are lovingly produced for a worldwide market of pickers who grin. The tour takes you right onto the factory floor where you can see up close and personal the artful combination of cutting edge science with old fashioned finger-applied glue on wood. It is more interesting than words can capture, even for non-players, because the Martin sound so defines what the acoustic guitar has come to be. Whatever the genre of music, everyone will have heard Martin’s contribution to it. Augusta Museum of History (Augusta, Georgia) is a terrific museum with sufficient floor space to do justice to an impressive variety of exhibits relating to the history, culture and politics of this fascinating part of Georgia. Of particular interest to music fans is the impressive – and still growing – collection, The Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown. One of the founding fathers of funk was an Augusta native – and an American dream original – who started on the streets as a shoeshine boy and climbed his way, through sheer talent, vision and a singular work ethic, to become a world-straddling ambassador for black American soul music. Ranked seventh on Rolling Stone’s list of its 100 greatest artists of all time, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” performed to his very last days and sang with as much testosterone in his later years as he did as a young man. Collection highlights span video of his performances and groundbreaking dance moves, his colourful costumes and capes and an audio tour of memories of Mr. Brown as told by B.B. King, Jesse Jackson, Dan Aykroyd and Fred Wesley. Take your time with this exhibit: it’s worth savouring. musicmuseums3 Delta Blues Museum (Clarksdale, Mississippi) is only steps from the fabled crossroads where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. No less a blues personage than Billy Gibbons (singer/guitarist for ZZ Top) has taken an interest in this exhibit. Gibbons is a walking encyclopaedia of the blues and a devotee of McKinley Morganfield, better known as “Muddy Waters,” the “father of modern Chicago blues.” The museum actually contains remnants of the cabin where Muddy Waters lived on Stovall Farms during his days as a sharecropper and tractor driver. Best known for electrifying the blues in Chicago, Bill Gibbons had a timber from Muddy’s shack made into a guitar in his honour. International Bluegrass Music Museum (Owensboro, Kentucky) is more than a shrine to Bill “The Father of Bluegrass” Monroe, though that would be deserved. Your classic bluegrass ensemble consists of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and upright or string bass. Everyone plays acoustic – no electric instruments – and players move into and away from the microphones in a studiously choreographed ritual that has the effect of putting every instrument where it needs to be precisely when it needs to be there. What’s cool about this place is that the exhibit collection includes mint condition posters from concerts going way back into the 20th century. Bluegrass has a rich history and some of the better known players are equal to or better than musicians in any other genre. Many audio performances have been preserved and can be sampled in this newer and lovingly curated shrine to bluegrass music. The Big House (The Allman Brothers Band Museum) (Macon, Georgia) – think shrine – is where The Allman Brothers Band lived as a family and band from 1970 to 1973. The band has always operated as an extended family, and the house provided a place for that family – including roadies – to live, for the band to rehearse, write and record and for the culture of the ABB to flourish. The Big House is overflowing with memorabilia lovingly curated to draw you through various stages of the band’s evolution, including artifacts and photographs of Dickey Betts – one of the two original guitar players who left the band in 2000. Honestly, with this band you either get it or you don’t – but if you do, you MUST visit The Big House. Give yourself three hours and another hour for the gift shop. You can also take the music history walking tour with Rock Candy Tours to get all the behind-the-scenes info. musicmuseums2 Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix, Arizona) is the most impressive display of musical instruments from all over the globe you will see anywhere. It’s hard to overstate the impact of this site for music lovers. The exhibits are designed to be viewed with headphones that activate as you approach the individual displays organized by country or region. You get to hear and watch the instruments as they are designed to be played and hear them in the context in which they are usually used. The variety of plucking, striking, bowing, blowing and vibrating things is just staggering. Had you any doubt that music was fundamental to the human condition, this museum will put that doubt to rest. You’ll need two things above all to do this venue justice: very comfortable shoes – it’s a sprawling space – and several hours to absorb the enormous variety of exhibits. musicmuseums4 The Blues Archive (Oxford, Mississippi) is a part of the University of Mississippi. The collection houses one of the largest blues music archives in the country, including donations by B.B. King (his entire personal record collection of more than 8,000 records kicked off the collection). The archive includes the first commercial blues recording, in 1920, a song called “Crazy Blues” recorded by Mamie Smith. If you contact the archive before you arrive, they can produce some early recordings for you and you can talk with the curator himself. Highway 61 Blues Museum (Leland, Mississippi) is a more modest exhibit close to the historic intersection of Highways 10 and 61 (the corners are marked by striking wall-sized murals that tell some of the story of the blues in this part of Mississippi). In the early 20th century Leland was known as “the hellhole of the Delta.” Saturday night bluesmen played on corners and in clubs until daybreak while thousands of people came in from the surrounding plantations for an evening’s blowing off steam. The museum’s small, but historically significant collection includes photographs, sheet music, instruments and posters. Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum (Tupelo, Mississippi) is the real thing - the small community where Elvis was born, spent his formative years and became steeped in a love for gospel. The museum's quiet grounds include the two-room, shotgun style house—on its original site, restored to circa-1935—where Elvis was born during the Great Depression, the family’s Pentecostal church and a state-of-the-art museum filled with artifacts and audio-visual clips. The church community is where Elvis learned to sing and play guitar. He was passionate about his first love, gospel music. MS Blues collage8 The W.C. Handy Museum (Florence, Alabama) was established to celebrate the life of musician and composer William "W. C." Handy (1873-1958), the “Father of the Blues.” Handy himself donated the seed money to set up the museum, which now includes several buildings and houses a large collection of memorabilia, personal items, and objects relating to his musical career. If you want to “go to the source” you’ll find your way to Florence. And while there, check out FAME recording studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (Nashville, Tennessee) is a shrine to the American dream: small town boy or girl discovers in themselves a rare and precious talent; pays their dues in the hardscrabble honky-tonks and bars clawing their way to a spot on the Grand Ole Opry before ascending to the summit of country music recognition on these hallowed floors in downtown Nashville. Truly, it’s a pretty impressive collection of exhibits with something for everyone. Those who only want to see the stage costumes – or luxed-out limosines -- of the latest and greatest won’t be disappointed. Those more interested in the long history of this American art form will be rewarded too. Got some time to linger? Visit RCA Studio B, the recording home of historic music titans including Elvis Presley (more than 250 songs recorded here), Chet Atkins, Eddy Arnold, and the Everly Brothers.

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