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‘State of Sound’ Highlights Personal Connection To Illinois Musicians

An exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum features stories from music legends with Illinois connections.
Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
An exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum features stories from music legends with Illinois connections.

Next to the sign announcing the folk section of a new exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM)is a collection of trinkets and photos that John Prine would bring up on stage - a comic book, a toy motorcycle and photos of his family.

“It just brings so much humanity to him and shows what a warm soul he has,” said Dave Hoekstra, who wrote the text for the exhibit and got to know Prine over years covering him as the music columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Prine died last year from complications due to COVID-19. His family lent the items to the presidential museum in Springfield for the “State of Sound: A World of Illinois Music”, which opened April 30.

Hoekstra said he didn't learn of the singer-songwriter’s antidote to stage fright until the mementos became part of the museum exhibit. He points to other personal stories in the show, such as a handwritten note Dan Fogelberg’s father wrote him thanking him for the song “Leader of the Band”, which Fogelberg wrote about him.

“When you connect with people on a human level, everybody can relate to that,” Hoekstra said. “Those are some of my favorite parts of the exhibit.”

The showcase highlights Illinois’ connections to music legends.

“We looked for (artists) that were important to the landscape of music globally,” said Lance Tawzer, the exhibits director for the ALPLM. “We also look for ones that made Illinois their professional home for long periods of time, whether they were born here or not.”

It includes treasures from some of the state’s best known artists: a copy of gospel icon Mahalia Jackson’s first album, a guitar from the band Cheap Trick, and an award commemorating REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity album selling 10 million copies.

“It has to be top heavy because Chicago is such a cultural center,” said Hoekstra of the selection of artists. “We also tried to show representation from all over the state.”

That includes singer June Christy, who was born in Springfield and grew up in Decatur.

“She is kind of a rags to riches story,” Hoekstra said. “She went out [to Los Angeles] to record for Capitol Records and had kind of a Jazzy, sultry, pop voice.”

Christy is featured in the jazz section of the exhibit along with Miles Davis and the red trumpet he played in the 1980s, and Herbie Hancock, who lent a keyboard.

For those looking for a connection to Abraham Lincoln, Ramsey Lewis offered scores and a program from his musical tribute to the 16th president that he premiered at Ravinia in Chicago.

Tawzer said he tried to go beyond instruments and career milestones. When he approached artists, such as the rapper and actor Common, or their families to request items, here was his pitch: “We care about the patron experience, we care about telling the story as comprehensively as possible. And we are looking for artifacts that are going to touch people and have an impact on people.”

Common, who was born in Chicago, offered the custom Prada suit that he wore for his performance at the Academy Awards of the song "Glory" from the soundtrack for the movie Selma.

The exhibit is organized into 13 genres, from spiritual, country, and R&B, to disco, punk, and metal. The metal section features a mic stand the band Ministry used while on tour.

“It looks like an oversized syringe, and it’s made out of metal and has a human skull at the base,” Tawzer said. “It is not for everyone.”

Tawzer said that’s part of his hope too – that people will be open to listening to the different kinds of music Illinois has to offer. “I really hope people make these stronger connections to these artists and realize they have a connection to them too because they’re from Illinois.”

Note: This event ended January 2022.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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