Bruce Olson spent his life as a reporter where the rules are "be accurate and quick and write short and snappy stories." He loved reporting but never got to tell the whole story. It was an itch that needed scratching. In 2016, after five years of research and writing, he published a brilliant two volume history, That St. Louis Thing. "This book," he says, "was the first time as a reporter I had the complete freedom to follow my nose."
In That St. Louis Thing Olson uses his reportorial and writing skills to present a 150-year arc of history. He uses the threads of blues music, civil rights and baseball to weave a broader historical tapestry that takes you from the 1800's to modern day Ferguson. Each chapter is a stand-alone piece that easily moves between past and present providing the reader with exciting digestible stories and segments of history.
Readers and music lovers got a taste of those stories at a unique event sponsored by Left Bank Books on Wednesday, July 19. Olson focused on the music angle reading from five chapters while being backed up by a group of stellar St. Louis blues musicians, Sharon and Doug Foehner, Brian Curran and Dave Robinson, that he humorously referred to as "the newly formed That St. Louis Thing Band."
Following each segment, the band would play a song directly related to the reading: from Scott Joplin to Blind Boy Fuller's "Rag, Mama, Rag" to Sharon Foehner's soulful rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," to versions of Ike and Tina Turner' "Rock Me Baby" and Lonnie Johnson's "Too Late to Cry" and Mississippi John Hurt's telling of "Stagger Lee," which Olson framed with the real story of the figure.
Olson's readings showed his reporters sense for detail that provided the context for the events he read about while his prose brought them to life. For example, his interview with Tom Maloney, a well know local bluesman, puts you right in the Club Imperial with Ike and Tina Turner:
First we get the band, the band does their thing, then the band goes into this boom-da-boom-da-boom-da-boom -- the beat like galloping -- then over to the left of the stage you see the Ikettes all standing in a line -- like this engine ready to go down the tracks -- and then -- they hit it and come right up on stage all dancing and prancing -- the strobe light goes on and you almost fall over -- you don't know what's happened -- and there's these incredibly beautiful, vivacious gals with these miniskirts on -- then there comes Tina, the queen of all of them --- man it was something -- and all the clocks stopped --- time just stopped -- and you were in a zone until they were done with us. It was quite fantastic.
There were other surprises too in the readings like the story of Bob Dylan's early 1960s relationship with Lonnie Johnson and how Lonnie's tips from those years came back to change Dylan's style beginning with his 1997 "Time Out of Mind" studio album. The music and nuggets like these made for an enjoyable evening but there's much more here to enjoy in this anything but dull history.
As Olson would be quick to tell you the two volumes came from five years of research. "I started to write a blues story," he says, "but things kept popping up and kept me going. For example, thanks to help from the St. Louis Library staff, I found documents that show the local civil rights movement could trace its roots back to a reform movement led by local middle class African American and white women. They wanted to improve the sanitation in Deep Morgan where the local clubs derived 1/3 of their revenue by charging people to use their bathrooms."
It's no surprise that what started as a blues story became much more because, as Olson admits, "giving details of a setting is what a good reporter does while a good philosopher gives the details of the context." For Bruce, the music ended up providing the narrative timeline to include the local, national and international context. He claims he "didn't know it was a complete history until it was done."
St. Louis's history is all there from a chilling description of the great cyclone of 1896, city politics, the 1917 East St. Louis race riot, baseball, the World's Fair, Lindbergh, Hooverville, Mill Creek valley, the North Side and South Side, musicians, clubs and a whole lot more. Bruce says, "I wanted to paint a full picture around characters."
That St. Louis Thing is a self-published book because publishers have difficulty with an unconventional history of this nature. Some suggested Bruce write three separate more narrowly focused books. As he says, "they couldn't see it in context and how the parts interrelate with one another." But it is the context and the weaving of the stories that makes this book such an enjoyable read.
Olson says his idea in writing this book "was to do something I wanted to do -- to finish one of my stories and tell the whole story." It's a good thing he scratched that itch. That St. Louis Thing: An American story of Rhythm, Roots and Race is a love story and tribute to this city, its people, its music and its place in history. Well done, Mr. Olson, well done.
See all of Bob Baugh's photos of the reading by clicking the image below.
Ratboys isn't planning on slowing down. They've just wrapped up a short tour supporting Pet Symmetry's new album, but vocalist/guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan still have another two months on the road -- including the July 23 stop at the Duck Room -- as they travel across North America for the release of their own album, GN. It's a wonderfully charming record that blurs the lines between the twang of country and the intensity of rock, all tied together with the pensive whimsicality of Steiner's songwriting. Pet cats and feral children, sisters and Antarctic expeditions; GN manages to weave seemingly disparate fragments into a collection of powerfully personal stories.
When I talk with Steiner over the phone, she and Sagan were at home in Chicago, taking a brief respite from touring before heading out to a show in Iowa later that day. (At one point, Steiner breaks off to check out the new strings Dave had put on the bass. "How are they sounding?" she asks; to which I hear the sound of a bass being strummed in reply.) It's not hard to believe that she's the voice behind Ratboys: she speaks with the deliberation and eloquence of a seasoned writer. "It's always a fun challenge to tell a story within the confines of a song," she tells me. "You have to be economical and concise." We discuss the tour, the making of the new LP, and the genre-bending power of "post-country."
Claire Ma: How is life on the road?
Julia Steiner: It's good! I definitely wouldn't be doing this if I didn't like it. There are new experiences being added each day, even though the actual routine of touring is remarkably consistent. But it's the perfect mix for me: I really like planning and routine, but at the same time, there's lots of new adventures to be had. I'm lucky because I get to tour with Dave, who's my partner and my best friend. I can understand for certain people it'd be really difficult to tour because they're leaving their partner at home or something like that, but we're in a lucky spot where we're together all the time.
CM: Did you write the song "GM" as an ode to touring?
JS: Yes! It's one of those songs where I was excited to say some of my friends' names and put them down forever on a recording. As we keep making music, I'd like to just keep adding verses and make a Bob Dylan-esque, ten-minute long, self-indulgent folk song.
CM: Your latest album, GN, shows more of an emphasis on the narrative element of the songs, as opposed to previous releases. How did the songwriting process differ?
JS: The first time we recorded AOID, it was very spontaneous. There wasn't any deliberation about a tracklist or certain ideas or stories that we wanted to include; they were just songs we had been playing for a long time, and it felt right to do those. This time around, there was a lot more -- well, it sounds kind of lame to say "planned," but we definitely took time to think about what songs we wanted to put on there. There were certain songs that I knew I wanted to finish that didn't have lyrics or a focus. Dave and I actually went up to Michigan for a few weeks, not just to record demos but to let me write and revise the lyrics to some of the songs -- that's how "Control" and "Crying About the Planets" came about.
I really love storytelling, and in college, when I was studying English, I just soaked up as many stories as I could. Now that I'm out of that environment, I really miss that a lot. It feels good to tell stories through songwriting.
CM: Are there any authors that have really affected your own writing?
JS: I've been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. He has this collection of short stories called Look at the Birdie which is amazing. I love his direct style and how he can be so whimsical but straightforward in one sentence.; I definitely try to write that way, too.
CM: With songs like "Molly," "Control," and "Elvis in the Freezer," there's definitely a familial bent to GN. How did your family influence this record?
JS: I really miss my family: I'm the only one here who lives in Chicago -- the rest of them are all over the place, so I don't get to see them very often. GN was kind of a way to connect with them and gesture toward them in a permanent, solid way. When I was growing up, I struggled with being able to show affection, especially to my siblings. It's not that I thought I was too cool -- it just didn't come naturally to me. This was a way for me to make up lost time and be very direct about how I feel and what my siblings and my parents mean to me. At this point, it's just a way for me to stay close to them, even when they're not there. Plus, it's fun to sing my sister's name on stage every night.
CM: 'Molly' is about your sister, right?
JS: Yeah! She did the cover drawing for the record as well. She's an amazing artist and it worked out really well. It was fun to collaborate like that -- we had never done that before. The idea was meditating --- very tranquil and serene -- but also with the rock hands.
CM: Ratboys is often labelled "post-country," which is an odd term considering you've played with acts from all over the spectrum, from math rock to Midwest emo -- basically, genres one wouldn't typically associate with country.
JS: 'Post-country' is a goofy term that I made up in college. When I was growing up, I had never really heard of these funny genres, like post-hardcore, post-rock, post-whatever; it's a strange thing to just assume that anything ever truly ends, as far as genres go. So when I was introduced to these things in college by Dave, I was, like, "Well, we kind of have a little bit of a country thing going, but it's definitely not straight country, and it's more indie than anything. Let's just lump ourselves in with some goofy post-genre." But I honestly do think there's a lot of merit to it -- you know, making music that really respects and utilizes certain impulses of traditional country music but made for indie fans and made by people people who -- speaking for myself -- grew up listening to more indie music than anything.
We play with so, so many different kinds of bands, and that's something I'm really proud of. With our music, there's a lot of versatility, and there's a lot of overlap between different crowds. The Free Throw/Sorority Noise tour definitely solidified that, even though we make music that's not the same as bands in their genre, it definitely fits; we'd meet people every night who said 'We've never heard of you, but we enjoy what you're doing,' and that was really affirming for us.
CM: Recently, I've heard "post-country" being thrown at artists like Alex G, so maybe you've coined something big here.
JS: There you go! I actually have a plan -- [laughs] I sound so arrogant for trying to take credit for this -- but when I have time, I'm going to sit down and try to come up with some analysis or literature about the term, because I really do want to explain it a bit more. Genre is so cool, and I think that'd be a fascinating way to analyze it -- like, a "Post-Country Manifesto."
CM: Do you guys have any future projects in mind?
JS: Definitely. We're actually going back to that same house in Michigan in December to demo out some new songs, and that's gonna be awesome because it's going to be all snowy and strange. And, back in May, we recorded four more songs that were B-sides for GN -- songs that we didn't really have a chance to record initially. Those are almost finished, and that'll be a little EP that'll be out on Topshelf soon. It's funny -- GN just came out, but my mind is so forward-focused at this point, so I'm excited to work on the next thing.
Since their formation, guitarist Will Sergeant has been the only regular member of Echo & the Bunnymen, a band who burst onto the indie music scene with their 1980 debut Crocodiles. From there Sergeant and vocalist Ian McCulloch would serve as the bedrock for a string of 30 singles and the classic albums, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, Ocean Rain and their commercially successful 1987 self-titled Echo & the Bunnymen. After a brief separation the duo regrouped in the mid-nineties as Electrafixion before properly reforming Echo & the Bunnymen and releasing another string of albums, beginning with 1997's Evergreen and culminating in 2014's Meteorites. Sergeant has also created several albums of ambient-tinged instrumental psychedelic rock under the moniker of Glide.
In advance of Echo & the Bunnymen's July 22 performance alongside Violent Femmes at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Sergeant spoke to KDHX's Rob Levy via Skype from the guitarist's home in the UK. An edited version of the interview was aired on the July 12 broadcast of Juxtaposition.
We may be "walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match-head," but every Friday evening in August offers St. Louis blues lovers good times and great music at the Blues at the Arch concert series. Started in 2016, the series grew out of desire by the Gateway Arch Park Foundation to draw attention to the $380 million renovation of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and its unique role as a national park that sits in the heart of a major urban area.
"The Foundation was established in 2009 to help fund and design the construction that begins at Keiner Plaza," explained Ryan McClure their Communication Director: "Now it was time to transform into a conservancy organization, much like Forest Park Forever. We wanted to do something to highlight the progress and call attention to the expanded facilities. The Arch was one trademark and our music, the blues, another."
The idea also coincided with the April 2016 opening of the National Blues Museum just a few blocks away on Washington Avenue. To curate the festival, McClure called on Dion Brown, the NBM Executive Director, and their board chair Rob Endicott and they loved the proposal. Brown saw it as "a partnership that would publicize the park and draw a diverse crowd to the site" as well as an "an opportunity for the NBM to spread its wings and be a bridge to blues community."
The result was a free three-week concert series at the Luther Ely Smith Square which sits between the Old Federal Courthouse and the Arch. The series featured local and national acts, including the National Park Service Centennial Jazz Band. They deliberately timed it to end on the final Friday in August prior to the Big Muddy Blues Festival. The partners were thrilled as the crowds doubled each week of the six band three-night series and drew more than 4,000 people.
This year they hope to draw a lot more fans to the free series with a new site and a program expanded to include ten bands every Friday night from 6 to 8:30 throughout August. The new location will be in the amphitheater by the Northgate entrance to the park, adjacent to Laclede's Landing and the Eads Bridge Metrolink station. The stage will face south with vendors' booths along the walkway on either side of the stage. The grassy location can accommodate and estimated 5,000 people.
The Gateway Arch Park Foundation and National Blues Museum want to fill the amphitheater. Their dual goals for Blues at the Arch remain raising awareness about the Arch grounds' renovation and St. Louis' thriving blues scene. To that end the National Blues Museum has curated a stellar mix of local talent and Delta blues musicians.
The life of William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues, is a tale long overdue to be told. After a ten-year effort, acclaimed Emmy-winning filmmaker Joanne Fish is ready to tell it on June 25, at a private event at the MX theater on Washington Avenue. Billed as "A St. Louis Celebration," it will be the first showing of Mr. Handy's Blues.
The St. Louis show honors this city's central role in the Handy story. As Fish explains it: "St. Louis was his crossroads moment either to go home and teach or be a vagabond musician. It was his spiritual moment. St. Louis is the soul of the Handy story, Memphis the heart."
It was in 1894 when a 20-year-old Handy found himself broke, starving and sleeping on the cobblestones beneath the Eads Bridge. He never forgot the pain and despair of those desperate times, nor the blues lament he heard from a woman stumbling down the street: "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea." Twenty years later it became a key line in "The St. Louis Blues," one of the most recorded songs in history.
The St. Louis showing is also a thank you to all the local individuals and musicians who helped her along the way. One of those is the local co-producer Dr. Rosalind Norman, a long time educator, black theater advocate and business consultant. She shared Fish's vision of showing Handy's "economic empowerment, optimism, and his rising above the challenge of Jim Crow violence." "It is an important message for St. Louis after Ferguson," Norman says. "It is an opportunity to see a person of color in spite of racism and poverty rise above it and become an international icon."
Fish's interest in Handy began while working in Nashville for TNT and doing a documentary on the "Queen of Rockabilly," Wanda Jackson. Wanting to learn more about those musical roots and a fortuitous 2007 film festival trip to Florence Alabama, Handy's 1873 birthplace, led her to the W.C. Handy museum. "I learned so much, so many cool things," she says. She was also shocked to learn there were no documentaries about this towering figure of twentieth-century music. Joanne was hooked, and the journey began.
There are two stories embedded in Mr. Handy's Blues. According to Fish, one "is a tale of family conflict, racial tensions and redemption, his love of music and his talent for transforming the oral traditions of his African American countrymen into a unique and commercial musical genre, namely the blues."
The other is the story of a successful African American businessman who, with his partner Harry Pace, created the first black-owned music publishing company in 1912 and moved it to Tin Pan Alley in the heart of Broadway in 1918. A century later the Handy Brothers Music Company is still in business. His songs "St. Louis Blues," "The Memphis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues" and many more are considered masterpieces in both the blues and jazz worlds.
W.C. Handy's arrival in New York also coincides with the early years of the Great Migration and the start of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a black businessman, a living example of what Marcus Garvey preached in Harlem about starting black owned businesses. He co-wrote song lyrics with Langston Hughes and organized the first blues performance in New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1928. Handy also wrote and was musical director for the first blues movie, St. Louis Blues, starring Bessie Smith and an all African American cast. (The film can be seen daily at the National Blues Museum.)
Handy was also a musicologist. Long before Alan Lomax took to the Delta with his recording machine, W.C. Handy and Abbe Niles wrote Blues: An Anthology (1926) which was illustrated by renowned Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias and is considered the most famous blues collection in history. Two more important historical texts followed in the 1930s, Negro Authors and Composers of the United States in 1935 and W.C. Handy's Collection of Negro Spirituals in 1938.
The filmmaker uses W.C. Handy to tell his own story himself by using film clips, recordings and his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues. She also brings the film to life with interviews with family members, historians and musicians like Bobby Rush, Taj Mahal and a 16-year-old Matt "Rattlesnake" Lesch playing a Handy song. Other St. Louis musicians appearing in the film include Miss Jubilee, Kim Massie, Kasimu Taylor, Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes, The Voodoo Blues Band and Race Simmons and the School of Rock Band.
The film and celebration have been supported locally by the Catherine Manley Gaylord Foundation, Cherry Red Productions, and STLBlues.net. The co-presenters for the event are The St. Louis Black Radio Hall of Fame, National Blues Museum, and the St. Louis Blues Society.
Mr. Handy's Blues has been accepted at a number of upcoming festivals in the summer and fall, including July dates at both the Macon Film Festival and at the W.C. Handy Musical Festival in Handy's hometown of Florence, Alabama. Watch for additional festival announcements. Discussions are also underway with several networks for a national broadcast of the film, as well as talks for the republishing of Handy's autobiography which paints a candid portrait of the violence of the Jim Crow era and an African-American musician trying to make it in society. The journey has been a long one for Joanne Fish and her Labor of Love production company but with the making of Mr. Handy's Blues she can take pride in her important contribution to African-American and musical history.