Memphis, Tennessee. A mention of the town’s name alone conjures images of everything from Elvis to the Mississippi River. From the luxurious Peabody Hotel and its March of the Ducks to the lowly Lorraine Motel and its wreath on the second floor balcony in front of room 306. Memphis means high crime rate, dirty streets, and the best BBQ in the world. Beale St. insanity, a near homeless and hungry looking white kid with a guitar on a street corner, and the badasses onstage at BB King’s joint knocking the tourists dead.
Like so many other very old and historic cities in the American south Memphis offers a smorgasbord of sights and experience. The theme isn’t an uncommon one. Booze, BBQ, Blues, the ever-present horde of tourists, blue-bloods and their old money and old mansions, Yuppieville and their new McMansions, decrepit buildings and shut-down factories, skyscrapers, shotgun shacks, and every level of dwelling in between.
And then there’s always the smell of that river, magnificently broad with its barges for business and its paddlewheels for pleasure, always in motion. Who can utter the name “Memphis” without hearing the strains of Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis”? Or Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis”? What hermit wouldn’t think of Elvis and Graceland? How can one stand and gaze at the power of the river and not think of Jeff Buckley, who drowned right there in the Wolf River Harbor?
The state of Tennessee has a history that puts it in a category unto itself. Without getting too history teacher on you, the three white stars in the center of the state’s flag represent the three recognized sections of the state: East, Middle, and West. It’s very significant to note that each of the three parts is a Mecca for important genres of music and music history. The Appalachian Mountains in East Tennessee were home to many European immigrants who brought from their home countries instruments like mandolins (Italy), fiddles and whistles (Ireland and Scotland), dulcimers (German derived), guitars (Spain) and banjos (which were actually of West African origin.) They also brought a cache of folk songs that were the pier-and-beam of bluegrass, gospel, and eventually Country Music. Although “hillbilly music” was being recorded in Atlanta’s teeming music scene as early as 1922, August of 1927 is considered to be the most important date in the history of Country Music as record executive Ralph Peer signed Jimmie Rodgers and A.P. Carter and the Original Carter Family to Victor Records, in Bristol, Tennessee. It’s considered the moment when the foundation of the genre was laid.
During these years that followed, the bigger city of Nashville, in middle Tennessee, and the state’s capital, became the obvious center for what was being called “Hillbilly Music” at the time. Most music historians would most naturally consider Nashville’s status as the “Home of Country Music” to have begun on November 28th of 1925 when WSM radio began airing the “WSM Barn Dance” in the studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance building featuring old-time string music. George D. “Judge” Hay was hired to be the on-air host of the show. That date is considered to be the birthday of the Grand Ole Opry. Hay actually coined the term “Grand Ole Opry” as a response to something the previous hour’s host, Walter Damrosch, said during his hour-long classical program “Music Appreciation Hour.” This program, which consisted of classical pieces and selections from the Grand Opera, preceded Hay’s WSM Barn Dance. On December 10th, 1927, Damrosch stated on the air that there was no room in the classics for realism. In response Hay stated, on the air, “Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’…For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry’.” The first time the term was ever uttered. It didn’t take long for the music publishing companies to emerge, recording studios to flourish, and multitudes of records to be pressed. The term “hillbilly music” was ditched for the more palatable “country music”, as many metropolitan areas were begging for more of it, and fans were emerging from all points. The crowds that came to the National Life & Accident Insurance building for the shows became so enormous that they agreed to move the program to accommodate the throngs of people coming to see it. Several venues later, one of them being War Memorial Auditorium, the Ryman Auditorium became its home, on June 5th, 1943. The Ryman had been built in 1892 by Thomas Ryman and was called The Union Gospel Tabernacle, a place for traveling evangelists to hold city-wide revivals. It later became known as the Ryman Auditorium, after its builder and came to be known as “The Mother Church of Country Music.” The rest? Well…you know.
Having offered a bit of background regarding the historic musical significance of East and Middle Tennessee it is time to consider the jewel of West Tennessee. Down in the southwestern corner of the state is that city on the Mississippi River, Memphis, the county seat of Shelby County. Shelby County itself conjures images of a legendary (and very real) sheriff named Buford Pusser, immortalized in the book and movie Walking Tall. Memphis is more than a city. It is a land of mythic proportion and tale. Just like its persons of celebrity and renown, it is adorned with rich history, embellished with legend and lore, and pocked by ugliness. Two truths about Memphis: It is the largest city in the state of Tennessee and the largest city on the Mississippi River in the USA. It was first settled by a group of mound-building Native Americans referred to now as the Mississippian Culture (800 – 1500 ce) and later by the Chickasaw Indian Tribe. As with most great port cities in the south, Spanish and French explorers arrived in their turn and did what Spanish and French explorers do (if you‘re actually reading down this far, then you must‘ve passed high school history…I won‘t put you through that again.)
I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who do not understand why there is a very large pyramid sitting in Memphis just off of I-40 near the river. Here’s the big reveal: The city was officially founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson, and named “Memphis” because of its uncanny topographical likeness to Memphis, Egypt, that country’s ancient capital. Memphis, Egypt sat on the Nile River on a naturally high, flood-safe bluff and enjoyed status as a successful port, just like its newly founded American namesake. Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861 (the last state to do so) but Memphis was rather quickly overtaken by Union forces a short year later. Over the decades there were mansions built, slaves bought and sold, cotton plantations, lumber and railroad industries, great wealth achieved, abject poverty suffered, social and political horrors, and yellow fever epidemics that, at one point, eradicated seventy-five percent of the population by death or evacuation.
Music…yes, then there’s music. A trip to Memphis, for history buff and music enthusiast alike, will transport you to a cerebral place that too few locations can take you. Music is often the first thing one will think of when the subject of Memphis arises. There were the Delta Bluesmen that moved up from the Mississippi Delta area, like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and the legendary Robert Johnson, to W.C. Handy (who moved to Memphis in 1909 and is considered the Father Of The Blues), to Elvis Presley, and many others. Memphis is indelibly and eternally stamped into the consciousness of people around the world as an epicenter of popular music. The city went through a period of time in which historic buildings were being torn down in the name of progress, and rich and important history was being lost forever at an alarming rate. One such piece of history that miraculously survived the decimation was a little edifice at 706 Union Avenue. It was a place of great significance from 1950 to 1959, and in ’59 its owner decided his business had outgrown the facility and needed a more spacious building to accommodate the growth, so move he did. The original location at 706 Union Avenue sat vacant for over 25 years and somehow, during that time, Sam Phillips’s original Sun Studio avoided the death sentence. It was reopened in 1987 and converted into an important tourist site and, more importantly, a working recording studio. Much of the original equipment has been restored and artists like U2 (who were profoundly affected by their visit to the city during the 80’s), John Mellencamp and Chris Isaac and many, many more have cut tracks in its modest confines since.
Today Memphis, Tennessee’s Beale Street is thronged with locals and tourists alike. The tourists come from multitudinous points around the globe. Their desired experiences will range from a pilgrimage to Graceland, that piece of preserved late-60’s aesthetic which was home to Elvis Presley, to a ride on a paddle wheel on the Mighty Mississippi, to BB King’s Blues Club. Numerous joints line Beale featuring old black men proclaiming that they play the “real, authentic Delta Blues (and they do), and some of the world’s most renowned BBQ, such as Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous (entered from a dirty alley) to Central BBQ, and others equally esteemed.
Another place of interest to the deeper soul would sit at the corner of Mulberry Street and Huling Avenue near downtown Memphis. It was opened as the Windsor Hotel around 1925 and was a one story, 16 room lodging which underwent a few structural and name changes, but was eventually bought in 1945 by Walter Bailey. Bailey changed the name of the place to the Lorraine Motel, an affectionate nod to his wife, Loree and the pop song “Sweet Lorraine.” He added a second floor to the building in a relatively short span of time. During those years Jim Crow was still a respected concept in the south and legal segregation the rule of the day. The Lorraine Motel was a mere six blocks from Beale Street which was a predominantly black area, and artists such as Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding, among other notables, had stayed there, being one of the few places in Memphis where blacks were welcome to lodge when in town to visit or perform.
The vitriol of the late sixties was constituted of civil anger, racial unrest, and flat-out hatred as this country had not seen since the post-Civil War period. There were hippies and their anti-Viet Nam war protests, George Wallace in Alabama whoring himself out to a cause for political advancement, college students getting shot by the National Guard in Ohio, and sanitation department union workers on strike in Memphis in early April, 1968…but let me go back a bit for perspective sake.
A black Baptist minister from Georgia named Michael King and his wife Alberta Williams King visited Nazi Berlin, Germany in 1934 for a World Baptist Convention and as a result of the experience changed his name to Martin Luther King, in honor of the great German Church reformer Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism. Without doubt, a visit to a place such as Berlin only one year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany had a profound affect on a black Christian minister from Jim Crow Georgia, and when his son was born, his name would be Martin Luther King, Jr.
A tragedy can happen anywhere. The south was certainly not the only place violent racism existed. The history books would have you believe that blacks were loved and accepted as equals one step north of the fabled Mason-Dixon line, but you’d be doing yourself a dire disservice to believe that. The fact of the matter is that Memphis just happened to be the town, on that day, a Spring day, April 4th, 1968. Just a day before, on April 3rd, King had delivered his “I Have Been To The Mountain Top“ speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, which served as the Church of God in Christ headquarters. The next day he stepped out on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, right outside his room, 306, and the crack of a rifle sounded. A few hours after the shooting, Lorraine owner Walter Bailey’s wife Loree suffered a serious stroke and died a number of days later. Rooms 306 and the adjoining 307 were shut down permanently. It is now a part of a larger Civil Rights Museum.
Recently I sat in the lobby of the historic and fabulous Peabody Hotel, not all that far from the Lorraine, enjoying the fine atmosphere, light snacks, and drinks. That lobby reminded me of depictions of the ballroom in the Titanic, luxury accessible to all the olfactory senses. As I sat there taking in the finery, I couldn’t help but focus on a handsome black couple. They were seated two or three tables across from my girlfriend and me, in their finely tailored clothing enjoying cocktails and the grand piano music of the woman playing it. The one pervasive thought that I could not arrest or subdue was that this black couple was here, in this bastion of luxury…and not in some low-rent, bad-side-of-town motel…the only place a black civil rights leader was allowed to stay in 1968.
Memphis…your beautiful southern face has been pocked with the rage of human existence. Our condition has been, by default, your condition. Yet, somehow, you’ve stood and declared immortality in spite of our fallacy. You’ve defiantly held your dignity in spite of our indignation. It’s no wonder the river there is so intense. Your tears, for centuries, have mapped a course that has created a beautiful scar in your magnificent face.
~ Jeff Hopson
Jeff Hopson resides in Garland, TX and has been in the Lone Star State since September of 1989, when he moved here from his native Tennessee. After three and a half years in Nashville, he channeled the spirit of his upper East Tennessee kinsman, a certain diplomat named Crockett, and stated, “You may all go to hell…I will go to Texas”. Jeff is a songwriter and performs often in the North Texas region, and has a collection of short fiction in the works.
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