Metro-East Living

These women made a mark on music history. Many don’t even know their names.

More than 80 photographs are featured in a new exhibit, “Women of the Blues: A Coast-to-Coast Collection,” at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis.
More than 80 photographs are featured in a new exhibit, “Women of the Blues: A Coast-to-Coast Collection,” at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis. znizami@bnd.com

Many of their names and faces are unfamiliar — that’s the point.

A traveling photo exhibit at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis showcases female blues singers and musicians, ranging from Mavis Staples to Susan Tedeschi and Irma Thomas to Sherry Pruitt.

“It is true that the men get most of the publicity, so women blues musicians are not very well known,” said Christopher Klug, 53, of Falls Church, Va. “It’s great to have a show about them.”

Klug was one of the first visitors to the St. Louis opening of “Women of the Blues: A Coast-to-Coast Collection” on Saturday. The contributing writer for Big City Blues magazine just happened to be in town for an event at Washington University.

Klug’s favorite photo was a black-and-white filmstrip showing the late Koko Taylor, often called “Queen of the Blues,” with John Lee Hooker at the Rhode Island Blues Fest in 1975.

“They’re not performing,” Klug said of the image by Terry Abrahamson, photographer and Grammy-winning songwriter. “It’s just a backstage, candid shot. They look so young.”

The exhibit contains more than 80 photographs, shot at Mississippi juke joints, West Coast festivals, Chicago nightclubs and Caribbean cruises. It represents all ages, backgrounds and styles, ranging from country and jump blues to boogie woogie.

Curator Lynn Orman Weiss is a Chicago music promoter, blues radio show host, magazine contributor and founder of the Women of the Blues Foundation.

Weiss shot one photo in the exhibit — a portrait of singer Ella Jenkins, 92, who was born at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis but grew up in Chicago.

“She’s the oldest living artist in the collection,” Weiss said. “She started out by playing blues harmonica, but then she got into folk and children’s music.”

The exhibit premiered in May at Firecat Projects in Chicago and was shown in conjunction with the Chicago Blues Festival before spending two months at University of Chicago Medical Center.

Weiss met many of the 16 photographers at concerts. Peter Hurley drove down from Chicago for the St. Louis opening last weekend and talked about why he’s hooked on photographing female blues singers and musicians.

“They’re so photogenic and powerful,” he said. “When a woman performs the blues, she’s in it 100 percent — body, mind and spirit. It has an effect on the photographer.”

The National Blues Museum opened in April on Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis. “Women of the Blues” will run through March 31. It’s free with regular admission ($10 to $15).

The exhibit is dedicated to Candye Kane, a Los Angeles-based blues, swing and roots singer who died of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer in May 2016 at 54.

The exhibit poster features Anne Harris, a Chicago-based singer and musician, wearing sandy-colored dreadlocks and a sheer tutu over colorful leggings, and holding a fiddle. Photographer Roman Sobus shot it at the Chicago Blues Festival two years ago.

“She represents the next generation of the blues,” Weiss said. “I really, really wanted to express the different shades of the blues, and it’s just a great fun photo.

“And if you saw Anne play, the way she encompasses the socialness and consciousness of the blues, it’s just extraordinary.”

At a glance

  • What: “Women of the Blues: A Coast-to-Coast Collection”
  • Where: National Blues Museum, 615 Washington Ave., St. Louis
  • When: Through March 31
  • Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
  • Admission: Free with regular admission, which is $15 for ages 18-65, $12 for senior citizens over 65 and military personnel and $10 for ages 5-17 and college students with school ID (free for 4 and under)
  • Information: Call 314-925-0016 or visit www.nationalbluesmuseum.org
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