Memphis - the land of the Delta blues

Damn straight!


All jacked up on Elvis we jumped in our rental car and drove along Grant Avenue to the sweet spot where Elvis (among other legends) laid down tracks, Sun Studios.

As with everything that day (from the grits to Graceland) Sun Studios was not what I had imagined. It was small and unassuming, you could walk straight past it, which we did, several times. They were very warm and welcoming when we finally breezed in. Unfortunately they don’t allow small children on the tour so after a moment of staring at eachother in silence, I bowed out and took Róisín for a walk while Dom (who is a huge music fan) took the tour.

The right decision had been made, after the tour when Dom found us picking through the gift shop, he was on a musical high. The names of legends who recorded there spilling out of his mouth; Elvis, Johnny Cash, BB King, U2. As one of the stories goes, one day Elvis, Johnny cash, Carl Perkins and Little Richard all showed up at the same time so they started jamming, someone hit record, and voila, they play the result for you on the tour (very cool).

"Go Cat Go"
Dom took over babysitting duties and shoved me through the tour exit that brought me into the heart of the sound studio. I saw the mike Elvis sang into, the drums Larry Mullen played, I may have only experienced a snippet of the tour but it was enough to give me a thrill “Good Golly Miss Molly”!

In my early teens there was a song about Memphis that pervaded the hearts and minds of my friends and I for an entire Summer, “Walking in Memphis”. The line ‘walking with my feet 10 feet off of Beale’ had been crooned to death by us, but where was Beale? What was it like? Should we form a band? A decade (or thereabouts, ahem) later I was about to find out (not about forming the band, thankfully that teenage dream had died in its infancy).

Beale St in Memphis is where all the old blues joints are gathered, slapped in among old timey shops, seafood southern restaurants, pubs and clubs. It’s a neon whirl of thumping music and good times. BB King has his blues club there -another legend who sadly just passed away (may the Beale Street Blues Boy Rest in Peace or perhaps party in paradise).

Best meal on Beale, apparently
We moved away from the buzz of Beale to walk down the quieter Main Street, it sets you up nicely to explore Union Avenue, Front St (featured in John Grisham’s book The Firm), and Riverside Drive.

My one massive regret is that our visit didn’t fall over a weekend so we were unable to hop on a steamboat and coast down the Mississippi river (weekday service only in November). Damn you Mark Twain for writing Huckleberry Finn and filling my childhood head with images of steamboats and the lazy life along on the Mississippi. I was gutted, but it does give me a reason to return.

To satisfy my waterlust we popped into the Peabody Hotel on Union Avenue. It’s the oldest hotel in Memphis and has kept it’s refined air. A writer once said of it, the Mississippi delta starts in the lobby of the Peabody hotel. It was where anybody who was worth knowing would be seen. We ordered some tea and took a seat in the crowded lobby for the ‘show’.

At 11am every day a group of ducks march through the hotel and dive into the fountain in the middle of the lobby. Tourists pack the place out, jostling for position to grab a photo of these quacking celebrities.

Frivolity and fun aside, it was time for something more serious that Memphis was famous for.

To quote Sun Studio’s U2 “Early morning, April 4, shot rings out in the Memphis sky, free at last, they took your life, but they could not take your pride.” In 1968 at the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee the civil rights activist and one of the most profoundly gifted, passionate, inspirational orators the world has ever seen was shot dead by a single bullet to his head.

It is in this motel that the National Civil Rights museum is housed. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to visit this museum. It will tear you down and build you up, it will destroy and enlighten you. Simply put, it will encourage change.

Black lives matter
Travelling through the south has been an education on the civil rights struggle and the apartheid that existed in this country up until frighteningly recently. After the American Civil War in 1865 a black person was to be considered two thirds of a person, as noted in the constitution at the time (how shocking is that fact alone!).

Segregation is over but segregation-by-custom (people choosing to live in neighbourhoods defined by race) still exists, especially in the south.

The museum pays a powerful tribute to the 1960s Selma to Montgomery march. It was supposed to be a non violent march but police came in with tear gas and truncheons. One white woman, a mother of 5, had driven from out of state to attend and help out at the march. She was shot dead by the Ku Klux Klan as she helped move people along the march. Reading this was the first of many times my eyes filled with tears in that museum.

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

The most moving moment for me was at the end of the museum, I stood by the room where Martin Luther King spent his last few days. You can stand beside the balcony where he was assassinated by a sniper, one shot, dead in seconds. I started to read the plaque with a quote from his father, the words blurred and bled as the tears streamed down my face…

"My first son, whose birth had brought me so much joy I jumped up in the hall outside the room where he was born and touched the ceiling - the child, the scholar, the preacher, the boy singing and smiling, the son - All of it was gone."

Memphis had left a big impression, it was time to see what lay await for us in Little Rock Arkansas.

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