Tuskegee exhibit honors musical history

Tuskegee exhibit honors musical history
December 2, 2009
Alvin Benn

TUSKEGEE -- Hank Wil­liams, Elvis Presley, Jim­mie Rodgers, Mahalia Jack­son, Pete Seeger, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe -- the list could go on and on.

They are enduring icons of American music, and Alabama is paying tribute to them and other stars throughout Decem­ber.

Their contributions are be­ing spotlighted at a unique Tus­kegee facility thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Travel­ing Exhibition Service and the Alabama Humanities Founda­tion.

The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Cen­ter is rapidly becoming one of the most popular tourist spots in Alabama.

The "New Harmonies: Cele­brating American Roots Music" exhibit, on the second floor of the former bank building, is a delight for those interested in learning more about those who became stars in their chosen musical fields.

America truly is a melting pot nation, and a tour of the ex­hibit should underscore the fact that immigrants brought their musical heritage as well as their scientific talents to our country.

Jazz and the blues are our creations, but much of the mu­sic we might call our own really originated in Africa, Europe and Latin America. We just re­fined it.

Just as we warmed to the Beatles and made the British group our own in 1964, the rest of the music-loving world couldn't get enough of Ameri­can musicians who broke the mold -- performers such as Louis Armstrong, Muddy Wa­ters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Charlie Par­ker.

What makes the Tuskegee exhibition so special is its inter­pretive feature. Instead of watching dust collect on some of the wood panels, visitors can push a button and actually hear the voices of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, two women who be­came blues legends during the early decades of the 20th centu­ry.

Their hit songs aren't much more than snippets, but it's enough to get a taste of just how great they were during their heyday.

Care to hear some Zydeco? All it'll take is the push of anoth­er button for some authentic Ca­jun music from Louisiana.

How about some Klezmer music? Eastern European Jews brought that type of music with them, and it was a showstopper in the Broadway and movie ver­sions of "Fiddler on the Roof." It's available on the tour, too.

The exhibit has more than just the sound of music. It also has the instruments used to make "a joyful noise."

"We've got a guitar just like the kind ordered from Sears Roebuck catalogs years ago," said T.C. Coley, who divides his time between the multicultural center, where he is the execu­tive director, and the Tallapoosa County Courthouse, where he is a commissioner.

Ask Coley what some of the homemade instruments are and he'll gladly demonstrate by pick­ing up a set of spoons and slap­ping them against his legs. An­other device is made out of plywood and metal and requires a vivid imagination on just what it does.

Coley and Deborah Gray, who manages the center, are tour guides as well as officials. Most of all, they are music lovers who must feel as though they've been let loose in a candy store.

While others pound on their computer keyboards or fix leaky plumbing, they've got a whole month to browse through an amazing exhibit, pluck guitar strings and listen to tunes per­formed by musicians whose skills resulted in worldwide rep­utations.

Those who find history bor­ing won't fall asleep as they ex­amine an amazing collection of musical lore dating back to the 19th century. In addition to the names and background of musi­cians, it also includes Native American music.

And, let us not forget that Tuskegee is the home of Lionel Richie. He and the Commodores had a string of hits before he branched out on his own and struck gold again as a solo act.

Once the "New Harmonies" tour is over, there's much more to see on the ground floor of the multicultural center, including details about the infamous Tus­kegee syphilis experiment. Co­ley, Gray and volunteers will be happy to lead guided tours.

With schools about to take a couple of weeks off for the Christmas break, December is a great time to take the kids to Tuskegee for a memorable tour of American musical history.
Comments: 0