Originally written in April 2014 – Part of the Deep South series
I can see some of you thinking that we were done with history because we had left Vicksburg. Well, not quite.
Getting to Memphis meant that we were in fact advancing with history, particularly the post Civil War period. Where were people able to go after the conflict? Where did they go? It very much depended on how far you wanted to go, where home had been and whether you had enough money to go as far as you wanted.
After the war a lot of the African American population that had been forced into slavery chose to go north, by following the Mississippi, the top end of which was Chicago. A lot of those that did not have enough means ended up "half way through" in Memphis. This is where history delivered one of those things that only history can. Consider these people's circumstances, it'll make more sense. They had spent hours, days, years working on the land, subject to incredible abuse and unsustainable treatment. All that suffering, all that pain, lead to the birth of some of the most popular forms of art of the XXth century. And it was all around the Mississippi : Jass (New Orleans), jazz (Chicago) and, of course, blues (Memphis).
During slavery times, the slaves created instruments in their huts. For example, they would get a piece of wood and, with 2 nails they would secure a piece of rope to create a makeshift guitar. There many improvised instruments and of course a lot of "lyric material" too. The main subject for blues is melancholy and its seed was planted along the Mississippi and it never left. It was in Memphis, a lot later and following the 1929 financial crash, when living of the land was no longer financially viable, that blues finally started to take off.
I would be lying if I did not recognise that Memphis is slightly on the gritty side today. It could clearly do with a bit of state investment: there are some empty streets with rundown buildings; a tad surprising in a big city of the USA. And even more so if we consider that Memphis was the Southern place to be during the 40's and 50's, particularly if you wanted a record deal. A lanky lad from Tupelo called Elvis knew that too.
He was 16 when one day he decided to record a song for his mam's birthday. At that time, you could go to a record store and make a one track record in exchange for a small payment. Elvis went to Sun Studios. The owner (Sam Phillips) listened to him and kept a copy of the record for himself. He had been looking for a local artist that he could add to his record company (tiny at the time) and found Elvis's voice to be highly marketable (i.e. Afro American tones in a white kid's body), but not quite there. He invited Elvis back a couple of times and it was only when he recorded "That's all right" that they had the winning formula. Elvis stayed with Sun studios until he became just too big and he was pulled out of Memphis to become a global superstar. Sun Studios is still open today and anyone can visit the recording studio and see not only all the pictures of all the amazing artists that have recorded there, but also see the mics, pianos and the actual space where recordings happened. There's an incredible picture of a time when Elvis, Jonny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins recording together…. Imagine being the producer. U2 also recorded their amazing "Joshua Tree" there.
And on the subject of blues, we cannot forget about blues's most important street in the whole wide world. Beale Street was the host of the best record stores and music clubs way back when. There are still many cool clubs on the street such as BB King's (we went there and the live music was great) and just around the corner you can also see Jerry Lee Lewis's. Beale Street is very American, very touristy and for sure not the best street to see true blues today, but I relished in the thought that one of my favourite singers of all time, Aretha, used to walk down that street looking for a job. Amazing.
Memphis is however not loyal to just one lover, but to 2. In Memphis, the love for the blues is only on par with the love for barbecue. The South is carnivore overall, but Memphis has, in its eyes, THE WAY to prepare meat before putting it in the smoker. Generally, they cook ribs or skirt and they place it in the smoker along with certain types of smoking wood (which of course are never spoken about). The rub that goes on is as big a secret as the wood – people will kill for recipes. The big point for Memphis is that it can do both dry and wet barbecue, but truly dry is their expertise. We were lucky enough to get a spot in Rendezvous and it was amazing.
Memphis is of course also remembered as the place where Martin Luther King Jr was killed. He was killed in a motel by a lunatic who agreed with segregation and who felt the movement would finish if MLKJ died. The motel is still there but of course it is not trading as such. It's kept there so that people do not forget what happened and is now part of the Museum of Peace, Education, Human Rights and Martin Luther King Jr, which is opposite. In one of the museum's rooms you can see a room with the step by step the assassin followed to commit the crime and it's both terrifying and chilling.
You may think Memphis is completely dependent on Elvis. I would not blame you if you did, because many people do and, in fact, I think many of its inhabitants think the same themselves. I took with my the image of a city with a lot of personality, with great people, with music everywhere and, most importantly with the potential to be a lot more if it receives more investment. No, I did not go into Elvis' home (only to the garden to see the grave) and yes, I would love to go back.
And I know the husband would also…. even if it was just to taste those ribs again!
Thanks for reading