In Music

"Melodies and Memories" runs through April 30 at Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Exhibit traces 200 years of Milwaukee music

The same old song and dance: annually, the Milwaukee County Historical Society launches the new year with an in-depth exhibition. Last year the show focused on beer; the previous year, Milwaukee architecture was spotlighted.

This year, the subject really is on song and dance as MCHS opens "Melodies and Memories: 200 Years of Milwaukee Music" this week at the museum, 910 N. Old World 3rd St. The show, which fills both levels of the beautiful former bank building with exhibits, runs through April.

A scaled-down version – with a surprised accompanying exhibit – will then continue through the summer, according to MCHS Executive Director Mame McCully.

"We try to find topics that are relevant to Milwaukeeans today but that they can then connect to the past," says McCully of the exhibitions. "We really can't figure out one person who hasn't had music as a part of their life in some way, shape, or form.

"The way we really set this up is to tell stories of the organizations today, such as Florentine Opera, UPAF, MYSO, Symphony Orchestra, the bands that are still around, things like that, and look at how is it that they are they here today? What's in the past?"

And curator Ben Barbera and his team have really reached back to answer these questions. Beginning with Native American and the ethnic musics that immigrants brought to Milwaukee, "Melodies and Memories" is a Milwaukee music 101.

"Music has been called the soundtrack of life and is integral to the culture of Milwaukee County," Barbera says. "This exhibit will go beyond genre and performer to explore music's role in Milwaukee's economic, technological, entertainment and social spheres."

There are explorations of classical music in the city, including early musical societies. Up on the mezzanine is a gorgeous furniture-sized Swiss music box that makes just about the loveliest sound you've ever heard.

There is a great section on jazz, with information on long-closed clubs. There's folk and gospel and country and blues, and even a section on Felice Bryant (aka Milwaukee-born Matilda Genevieve Scaduto), who co-wrote numerous hit songs including a number for the Everly Brothers, like "Bye Bye Love," "Bird Dog" and "Wake Up Little Susie." There's a soul section with a cool Seven Sounds poster.

There's a big section on rock and roll, with memorabilia from widely known bands like the Violent Femmes, but also local innovators and pioneers like The Haskells. A couple screens offer up music and videos – including a great one of a young Die Kreuzen from 1983.

"We use six broad topics to sort of create an impressionistic view of the history of Milwaukee music," says Barbera. "We tried to pick some of the most important elements and hone in on those, such as music education components, in which we talk about the early conservatories and music schools and bring it up to modern day talking about MYSO."

Many of the objects are from the museum's own collections, but the exhibits also draw on materials loaned by Marquette University's extensive Cuje Collection of Milwaukee music, Ron Faiola's Milwaukee Rock Posters archive, Ko-Thi Dance Company, Hal Leonard Music, Koss Headphones, Brass Bell, Cascio Interstate Music and other sources. McCully says there are roughly 30 businesses and institutions that are co-sponsors or collaborators on the exhibit.

The coolest items, if you ask me? Two panels of band business cards that were rescued from Bay View's Faust Music before it was closed and the building demolished.

But younger music fans will love the instrument petting zoo and another area – stocked with a variety of instruments supplied by Cascio and Brass Bell – that allow visitors to strum ukeleles, rock out with electric guitars, poke at keyboards and rock some electronic drum kits (all with headphones, except the ukes).

"I thought it was going to be some cymbals and some little xylophones but it's way cooler than that," says Barbera with a smile.

As always, McCully says, the exhibit will be augmented with an array of related programming, including happy hours, a trio of family days and, on Jan. 19, a one-of-a-kind Florentina Opera event. Details can be found here.

"We are excited to continue offering the community exhibits that share Milwaukee's history but that people can also relate to," said Mame McCully, executive director of MCHS.

"Music is part of every person's life in one way or another and this exhibit offers people an opportunity to connect with this part of Milwaukee's history in so many ways."

Details on the Milwaukee County Historical Society's hours and admission prices can be found at


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