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‘St. Louis Sound’ Exhibit Explores How The Region Became A Musical Powerhouse

St. Louis band the Welders, photographed at Jamestown Mall in 1977, pioneered punk before its members even graduated high school.
Courtesy of the Welders
Missouri History Museum
St. Louis band the Welders, photographed at Jamestown Mall in 1977, pioneered punk before its members even graduated high school.

The Missouri History Museum wants to take St. Louisans on a musical trip down memory lane later this month. Debuting Saturday, its new 6,000-square-foot special exhibit explores the history of popular music in St. Louis, “from the dawn of recorded sound in the late 1800s to the turn of the 21st century.”

That includes highlighting prominent musicians whose sound was formed in the Gateway City, from Tina Turner to Nelly.

"We wanted a sort of St. Louis 101,” Andrew Wanko, the exhibit’s content lead, explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “If you know nothing about St. Louis music, this is the place where you can come and spend an hour and get that basic understanding you need to really appreciate what this city has produced."

All about St. Louis Sound
Listen to Andrew Wanko, and some music inspired by St. Louis, on St. Louis on the Air

But it’s not only prominent acts who have a place here. “We tried to think of this exhibit almost like a really wonderful album,” Wanko said. “You've got some greatest hits, you've got some deeper cuts, even a novelty tune or two. It's a sampler platter of St. Louis music, so then you can go out and learn more on your own.”

One band you might want to learn more about is the Welders. The all-female punk group’s members were mere high schoolers — and recorded their first album in 1979, soon after the Clash and the Ramones. “They are at the cutting edge of punk rock music,” Wanko said.

He added, “You have no idea how many people I talked to who said, ‘You've got to talk to the Welders. They're the coolest band.’ When you come to the exhibit, we have stage clothing from all four of the members on display. It's sort of equal parts thrift shop/homemade clothing with just this campy, wonderful flavor to it. And they were so confident. Like, you listen to these songs they're writing. They're in the middle of what was then a very male-dominated world. And here, they were up on stage. At their shows, if they had an unresponsive crowd, they would scream at them: ‘Is this an audience or an oil painting?’”

Alas, Wanko noted, the master tapes of their first album were lost forever and the record unreleased after their business manager ran into financial trouble. It was decades later when a local record company, working off an old cassette tape of their studio work, finally released the album, years after the band’s members went off to college.

The Welders’ attire is among nearly 200 artifacts on display in the show, including, most significantly, the “St. Louis tinfoil,” a recording St. Louisan Thomas Mason made in 1878 on a phonograph. It is the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the earliest known recording of a musical performance.

Overall, Wanko believes the show makes the case that our local music history is really American music history: “I really think St. Louis' musical legacy has been underappreciated on a national scale. When you look at how many genres that we touched — not just having popular musicians in these genres, but groundbreaking musicians [including] Scott Joplin, Tina Turner, Miles Davis — these were people who totally redefined genres."

And by telling their story, Wanko said, the museum is telling the story of a city and a nation.

“Historians love to compartmentalize things into, ‘Well, that's immigrant history. That's food history. That's baseball history.’ But in reality, it's never so clean-cut. St. Louis music history is St. Louis history. When you go through this exhibit, you're going to be learning about musicians and songs. But you're also going to be learning about race and ethnicity, you're going to be learning about fashions, local neighborhoods, the places and the radio stations where this all happened. All of that context. That is the wider St. Louis story. We want to make sure that that is just as celebrated.”

A series of free activities has been planned to celebrate the show’s opening, including concerts by the Red & Black Brass Band and Murphy Lee and Friends. See the museum’s website for details.

Related Event

What: St. Louis Sound exhibit
When: Thursday, August 28, 2021 through Sunday, January 22, 2023
Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the date the Welders recorded their first album.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.