A search for the blues on a trip to St. Louis

September 04, 1994|By Carolyn Spencer Brown | Carolyn Spencer Brown,Special the The Sun

St. Louis, America's 17th largest metropolitan area, may be famous for its historical role as America's Western gateway and for its unusual arch, a towering stainless-steel monument to Thomas Jefferson. The Mississippi River city also boasts the St. Louis Zoological Park and Union Station, a restored 1890s train terminal.

But to get to the heart of this town, I had to find the blues. On a recent weekend jaunt, I embarked on a tour of St. Louis that took me through the city's crazy quilt of neighborhoods. In my search for the blues, I also stumbled on museums, distinctive shops and plain old relaxing fun. Oh, and I also listened to some heartbreaking blues.

Why St. Louis for blues?

"People think of St. Louis as the arches, the gateway to the West," said Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, a well-known University City music hangout. "But we're also mixing sound from the North to the South. We're a great cultural mixing ground."

Blues music is so pervasive in St. Louis that there's even a museum exhibit devoted to its heritage. Being a newcomer to the blues style of music, I started at the History Museum in Forest Park, where "Ragtime to Rock 'n' Roll: St. Louis African-American Music," is now a permanent exhibit. Through photographs, original recordings and memorabilia, the museum offers a great introduction, providing tidbits including Tina Turner's high-school yearbook, which shows her as Anna Mae Bullock.

The roots of blues music comes from spirituals and work songs sung by slaves in pre-Civil War days. Back then, songs that came from the heart, soul and spirit were a means of expression and way of relieving boredom.

During the earliest part of the 20th century, those gospel tunes were combined with ragtime -- the "rock and roll" of that era -- which was made famous by Scott Joplin, a famous St. Louisan. The integration of gospel and ragtime became St. Louis' signature blues flavor.

St. Louis' location at the center of the nation's rail and river systems, which drew African-Americans searching for job opportunities, made it a natural place for their music to thrive, and the city attracted such talents as Scott Joplin, whose form of ragtime is a precursor to blues, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry and Ike and Tina Turner.

It's a style of music with great modern appeal. "Blues is pain

from the heart," explains John May, founder and chairman of the St. Louis Blues Society.

On a short weekend visit, I was able to pack in visits to St. Louis' three primary blues neighborhoods.

* Soulard, on St. Louis' south side, is a historic neighborhood that once had over 100 breweries. While only one remains -- Anheuser-Busch Brewery (tours are free) -- the area's legacy is honored in its plethora of pubs and bars.

My favorite spot is the Broadway Oyster Bar, a joint with a stamped-tin ceiling, where the cover charge on Saturday night was just $3 or a log for the fireplace. There's also world-class blues at Mike & Min's Restaurant and Bar and the 1860 Saloon & Restaurant. There's the psychedelic Venice Cafe, an artist-owned restaurant, featuring a bar made out of a boat in a Peter Max-inspired atmosphere and top-flight blues six nights a week. And, there are neighborhood bars, too numerous to mention, which offer small,unknown, local bands that may be on their way up or may never be heard from again.

Music aside, Soulard also offers a birds-eye view of a lovingly restored blue-collar neighborhood of the 19th century. The Lilliputian row houses are exquisite and home to many of St. Louis' urban homesteaders. The shops here are worth a stop, especially the Soulard Market, a farmers market that dates back to 1779. Also visit the area's Cherokee Street Antique Row, an eight-block stretch of shops.

* Narrow cobblestone streets and hulking warehouses and factories with 19th-century cast-iron detail create a way-back-when feeling in Laclede's Landing, located on the banks of the Mississippi. Since the neighborhood's partial restoration, it offers antiques shops, cafes and restaurants. And, of course, some of the city's best blues bars.

Laclede's Landing is the site of the city's annual Labor Day weekend St. Louis Blues Festival, an outdoor event that draws hordes and offers a festive cornucopia of music, dance and food. also home to terrific venues like Hannegan's Restaurant & Pub, Mississippi Nights and Kennedy's 2nd Street Co. Or, there's the Bernard Pub, Bogie's On the Landing and Boomers.

A non-blues-related side trip here is a must: The Gateway Arch is just a few hundred yards away. Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, it's the tallest man-made monument in the United States.

There are two ways to admire the Gateway Arch. The nonclaustrophobic can take a ride to the top in the arch's five-seat capsule that resembles nothing more than a giant toilet bowl and crawls up and down the silver legs for a total of seven agonizing minutes. There's an observation area at the top.

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