DTLA - Downtown’s museums and galleries stand out for their big shows. The Museum of Contemporary Art is currently hosting the major retrospective Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at MOCA. The new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery’s inaugural exhibit focuses on abstract sculpture from female artists over the course of 70 years. Next month, The Broad will debut an extensive show of the photographs of Cindy Sherman.
The Grammy Museum is going in a different direction. While it doesn’t offer anything on the scale of the abovementioned exhibits, it has three just-opened shows, and a fourth arriving this week, that are all smaller. Together, they provide a critical mass of intriguing new draws at the South Park complex.
The topics range from technological innovations in music to a folk revival to one of the biggest names in rock: Bruce Springsteen. Here’s a rundown.
Play It Loud
After World War One, American music took a turn toward a guitar-heavy sound. That happened because guitarists were trying make their instruments louder and stand out against horn sections. That is where the National String Instrument Company came in.
Shine Like a National Guitar, which runs through next spring, comes from a donation of more than 50 National guitars by New York-based realtor Todd Cooper. Specifically, it shows off the resonator guitars the company started producing in 1927. The innovation came from placing a metal cone inside the guitar that served as natural amplification.
“These guitars were the answers to the vexing problem of, ‘How do I get more sound out of my guitar?’” said Bob Santelli, the executive director of the Grammy Museum.
The museum has 10 guitars and ukuleles from the National brand on display, including a Style 3 Tricone 3 Resonator Ukelele that had only been seen in catalogues until a physical version was discovered.
Nwaka Onwusa, the museum’s curator, said that even after electric guitars and rock and roll took off in the 1950s, resonators still played a major role, as folk artists such as Bob Dylan stuck with the instrument. Santelli said it is a happy accident that the National Guitar exhibit overlaps with one focused on folk music, also on the fourth floor of the museum.
Aloha, Folk Music
Folk music is folk music because the songs are passed down from generation to generation, adapted for the time but keeping their roots. That kind of adaptation is what the Kingston Trio, a group out of Hawaii playing traditional
songs from the American East Coast, did in the late 1950s.
Curated by the Woody Guthrie Center, The Kingston Trio and the Folk Revival charts not only the band’s success, but also the fall and resurrection of folk music in mid-20th century. Onwusa said the Kingston Trio made folk music commercial enough to welcome it back into American homes, while keeping true to the genre’s roots.
“The Kingston Trio popularized it to college students and made it more popular by putting a more upbeat tempo to the melodies,” said Deana McCloud, the executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center. “Folk music wasn’t dead. It was still there. It just needed a new generation to carry it forward.”
The exhibit, which continues through the fall, is the largest of the four new shows, with two walls displaying booklets, guitars and outfits from the trio and other bands. It contains a large room showing a documentary on the group, as well as other items from the Kingston Trio. Visitors can also listen to some of the band’s songs, including their hit take on the folk standard “Tom Dooley.”
The displays trace how the genre came back into popular culture in the early ’60s, with musicians such as David Van Ronk and the group Peter, Paul and Mary. Mc Cloud said the revival spurred on new musical trends with the folk rock of Bob Dylan.
The 1960s brought not only the folk revival, but also the rise of Motown. One of the biggest acts of the time was the Miracles, whose line-up included Smokey Robinson.
The band had numerous number one hits and was the first group to sign with the Motown label. Its history and legacy are on display in Legends of Motown: Celebrating the Miracles. It collects records, recording notes, outfits and personal items from band members in three cases along a wall on the museum’s third floor. It is the second installment of the Grammy Museum’s series on Motown and its influence, following a showcase on the Supremes.
Onwusa said the exhibit not only recounts the Miracles’ chart-topping success, but reveals the band’s life before they became big. The cases contain photographs and early writings from the group, showing line-up changes and different names before they signed with Motown. Intertwined with that is the story of how the label formed, with founder Berry Gordy, Jr.’s initial efforts in creating the label.
“The general fan who loves Motown will learn fascinating stuff they might not know about the label,” Onwusa said.
Many of the items found in the collection come from one of the Miracles herself, Claudette Robinson. Robinson was the first woman to sign a deal with the label, earning her the fitting sobriquet the “First Lady of Motown.”
The Boss on Frame
On Thursday, May 26, the Grammy Museum will debut Bruce Springsteen: A Photographic Journey. The exhibit showcases 45 photos of the New Jersey rocker on and offstage.
“We picked five photographers who documented five different points of view from different periods of Springsteen’s career,” Santelli said.
The exhibit includes the work of Ed Gallucci, who documented The Boss in the early 1970s, along with Danny Clinch and Pamela Springsteen, Bruce’s sister. Also on display are photographs from Eric Meola, who did the sessions for Springsteen’s Born to Run album cover, and Frank Stefanko, a New Jersey shooter who covered the singer during his Darkness on the Edge of Town period. Almost every image comes from behind-the-scenes moments, with Springsteen offstage, traveling and taking a break between gigs.
The exhibit includes four last-minute additions from Barry Schneier, who photographed Springsteen’s May 9, 1974, Harvard Square Theater show, which is considered his breakout performance. Santelli said that the opportunity to include them was too great to pass up, despite the shift in style from the rest of the pictures.
Bruce Springsteen: A Photographic Journey runs through June 19.
The Grammy Museum is at 800 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 765-6800 or grammymuseum.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2016