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The Milwaukee County Historical Society Explores Two Centuries of Milwaukee Music

Jan. 17, 2017
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Milwaukee musicians never produced a “sound” as distinct and universally recognized as San Francisco or Athens, Ga.; Milwaukee was never a music industry hub to rival New York or Los Angeles. It was neither the birthplace of jazz nor the mecca of the blues. And yet, compared to many cities, Milwaukee has a history at once uniquely interesting and replete with artists and companies that left their mark on the world.

That history is on display in “Melodies and Memories: 200 Years of Milwaukee Music.” The exhibition at the Milwaukee County Historical Society seeks to encompass its subject from Native Americans circa the arrival of European settlers through the end of the 20th century and includes everything from the requisite concertina to music by The Rusty Ps at the listening stations.

“We were thinking of future exhibitions on big accessible topics that would bring in larger audiences—subjects that people could connect with in different ways,” explains curator Ben Barbera.

Spread across the ground floor and mezzanine of the venerable Historical Society building at Pere Marquette Park, “Melodies and Memories” groups its wall cards, artifacts and interactive components in broad sections representing facets of the city’s sonic story. Milwaukee isn’t usually associated with the music industry, yet one of the exhibit’s ground floor displays honors such locally based firms as Koss, the headphones pioneer, and Hal Leonard, the world’s largest sheet music publisher. Cascio Interstate Music furnished an interactive area with guitars, keyboards and drums audible only through headphones worn by the player. “It’s great for novices. No one else can hear,” Barbera says. 

However, most of “Melodies and Memories” is for looking, not touching. In curating the exhibit, Barbera began with the Historical Society’s permanent collection. “It’s heavily late-19th, turn of the 20th century,” he says. “We have an extensive sheet music collection from that era. And we have a lot of classical music stuff—many photos through around 1970 but not much post-1970. Going into this exhibition, it would clearly be a collaborative effort to bring in artifacts from local organizations and members of the community.”

The musical instruments on display represent the city’s ethnic mosaic with everything from a West African drum to a Central European zither. Included are such oddities as a mandolin-zither hybrid dating from the early 1900s when mandolin orchestras proliferated in Milwaukee. 

No one will be surprised to find polka in “Melodies and Memories,” but Milwaukee, while far from Nashville, nurtured a country music star in Pee Wee King (born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski on the city’s South Side). The 1940s-’50s African American neighborhood called Bronzeville gets a nod with panels mentioning jazz clubs such as Thelma’s Back Door and Mayme’s Ebony Bar. Information on the pre-1970 blues scene must be sketchy; the genre is represented by a large panel on Short Stuff, one of the area’s most popular blues acts in the ’70s.

One corner of the exhibit is covered in early ’80s posters and flyers promoting shows at The Starship and other punk rock clubs by The Violent Femmes, Plasticland, Die Kreuzen and The X-Cleavers. A gown worn by chanteuse Hildegarde adorns a mannequin; a copy of the Florentine Opera’s Grammy-winning CD, Elmer Gantry, sits in a glass display case. The listening stations include 70 selections of local recordings in many genres.

“Milwaukee always had a unique focus on music education, perhaps from the German cultural influence,” Barbera says. “In the 1940s and ’50s accordion schools enrolled thousands of students. Also, Milwaukee had organizations like UPAF that have supported the arts for the last 50 years—one of the largest efforts of its kind in the country. And Summerfest is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. 2017 is going to be the year of Milwaukee music!”

“Melodies and Memories: 200 Years of Milwaukee Music” is on display through April 29 at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World Third St. For more information visit milwaukeehistory.net

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