As is often the case these days, I’m ashamed to say, I hadn’t really done any research about Memphis ahead of touching down in the land of the Delta Blues. Of course, I had been focused on the main part of my journey, which was the paddling down the Mississippi River – but if I had stopped for a moment I would have realised what an iconic place I was really coming to.
“Then I was walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?”
Beale Street! That’s where it all started. We had a big barbecue dinner on our first night in town at Silky O’Sullivan’s – an unlikely choice among all the blues bars that the street has to offer, but with plenty of Memphis magic in the form of blues artist Barbra Blue. It was a pretty magical night anyway, what with it being the night of the full super blood moon eclipse as well as our first night as a group ahead of our paddling adventure.
Having now read up on Beale Street on Wikipedia, that wondrous source of information, I’ve discovered some of the rich history of this street, which created “the first black millionaire from the south” in the late 19th century, became populated with many clubs and bars that were owned by African-Americans in the early 1900s, and over the years played host to such renowned artists as Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and B. B. King. Today, of course, it’s the most touristy area of the city, but that doesn’t detract from the amazing music booming out of the clubs.
At this point, I can’t help but fast-forward in time to our first night back on land after our river adventure, when we spent the evening in Clarksdale. In his series Stephen Fry in America, Fry refers to Clarksdale as “one of those magical and inexplicable places, rather like… Salzburg,” along with a less complimentary description of the town as a “frankly rather desolate, dirt-poor place… seems like the middle of nowhere”. It’s true that it did seem quite an unlikely place to serve as the birthplace of the blues. Clarksdale is also home to the myth of blues musician Robert Leroy Johnson who is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for success (though it seems he didn’t meet with a lot of success during his lifetime and died at the young age of 27).
After dinner (where we had a bit of a pizza debacle and I was given both a birthday shot and a birthday brownie – but that’s by the by), we headed for Ground Zero, the club co-owned by Morgan Freeman. A $10 cover charge, a lack of atmosphere, and a personal recommendation from our friend River led us to continue on to Red’s. And wow were we glad we did. What a place.
Performing that night was B. B. King’s oldest son, Marvin King (one of 15, as it turns out!). Such a small, intimate club – they don’t even seem to have a website – and yet such a legend playing there. The drummer was impressive, 100% on the beat and 100% connected with the singer. The bass player had the opposite technique and was completely spaced out while still managing to play along. The best part was how informal it all was. We spoke to Marvin afterwards – he’s on his way to the UK to hang out with Eric Clapton – as well as the band members and the owner of the club. VIP treatment in the most authentic way.
Anyway, back to Memphis. And, in fact, that’s exactly where we headed after Clarksdale. Most of the group left for their flights back home but I stayed on an extra day to at least get a bit of a taste for the city. I would have loved to stay for longer as there was so much more to do! There’s Graceland for starters, home of Elvis Presley, as well as Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum… Instead, a friend and I spent almost the whole day at the National Civil Rights Museum. There was so much to see, so much to take in, that we even left for a lunch break and then came back for more.
We don’t learn about the history of slavery at English schools; nor about the American Civil War, or the civil rights movement. I had some vague idea that slavery had been ‘justified’ intellectually with the argument that there were lesser races that deserved, or even desired, to be enslaved, and that blues music had emerged from the subjugation of blacks in the south – as B. B. King said, the melancholy tones of the blues were “an expression of anger against shame and humiliation”. I must also admit, naively, that a lot of my very limited knowledge comes from Hollywood, most recently from The Butler (in which I learned about the freedom riders), along with films like Gone with the Wind, Forrest Gump, A Time to Kill, and The Help, or from books like Huckleberry Finn and The Color Purple.
I was most touched by the courage shown by the men and women, black and white, who stood up for what was right, choosing to become freedom riders or to protest in other ways. Just listen to the maturity of 14-year-old Washington Booker III, speaking in 1963: “It was courage. It was Black people standing up saying… ‘I’m a human being, I have a right to go and to be treated like a human being,’ even more so than the jobs… I heard… that the leadership didn’t want to use the children… but as soon as the idea got around among the kids… we moved on it. [O]ther folk had already gone to jail and we knew what to expect. I think that we have never been powerless since that day.”
Would I have had such integrity and spoken with such eloquence at that age? Would I have taken action to push for other people’s human rights? Or would I have been one of those ignorant white people who I saw in photographs at the museum, the people who filled the seats of cafés and bars with self-righteous grins on their faces as they prevented blacks from coming in and sitting down? What am I doing about the blatant injustices that exist in the world today?
What about you?
It makes you think.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
– Dr Martin Luther King Jr, 4th February 1968