The walls of the Rivers of Rhythm Path contain not only images of Black artists in performance but also expansive screens that convey this history on a grand scale, advancing through the timeline like a movie-palace documentary but also pausing, at intervals, to present immersive performances by some of the greatest Black musical artists in history. It was my great luck to be in the gallery just as a larger-than-life Prince began to sing “Purple Rain.”
The galleries that open from the central corridor are both period-specific and genre-deep, offering more extensive explorations of the time and music, in both high-tech forms and in the glass cases of more traditional museum exhibits. (On display at the National Museum of African American Music are more than 1,500 artifacts.) In addition to the Rivers of Rhythm Path and the five period-specific galleries, there are also eight smaller exhibits that offer museum visitors a participatory experience — the chance to sing with a gospel choir in the Wade in the Water gallery or to rap in the one called The Message.
Standing outside, in front of the construction site that obscures the Broadway side of the museum, it’s hard not to wonder how this jewel could possibly belong smack in the middle of the least beautiful — the least truly Nashville — part of Nashville. But looking just a few yards up Fifth Avenue, you start to get the point: Opposite that side of the new museum is the Ryman Auditorium, known to country fans the world over as the Mother Church of Country Music.
Like the Ryman — and like the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, both only blocks away — the National Museum of African American Music is a space that honors the musical traditions of the past in a way that helps us understand that the past is never truly past, that it is always tugging up both its treasures and its tragedies and carrying them insistently into the future.
As Ken Burns points out in his documentary series on country music, the genre that gave Music City its nickname owes as much to Black songwriters, musicians and innovators as it owes to those white performers who slipped out of the Ryman to the back door of Tootsie’s and scrawled their names on the back room walls. Nashville tourists, even Nashville natives, might not know many of the names of the artists who created the River of Song, but that’s about to change. The National Museum of African American Music is exactly where it needs to be.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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