Although they are both in Tennessee, Nashville Tennessee and Memphis Tennessee are very different. While Nashville seems to have few buildings that are more than ten years old, Memphis seems to have few, if any that are less than ten years. Nashville streets are jammed with traffic, but Memphis’ were generally empty.
Yet Memphis does have its own attractions. Graceland is still the city’s Number One attraction with the Peabody Hotel ducks not too far behind. The city is loaded with interesting museums, paddlewheel riverboats, and last, but certainly not least, Beale Street. Beale Street is to the blues what Nashville’s Broadway Street is to Country and Western—two neon-lined blocks jammed with music clubs, restaurants, and quirky stores, such as Schwab’s Drygoods where you can buy (or just try on) interesting hats.
There are also some interesting areas outside the city center. These include midtown quasi-arts districts including the South Streets Arts District (with its temporary public art projects), Cooper-Young Entertainment District with its boutiques and murals, and areas of older, fashionable, and well-maintained residential neighborhoods, as along Peabody Avenue.
We spent most of our time exploring the city’s many sites and wandering up and down Beale Street searching for the clubs at which we wanted to stop for a drink and a set of music. While we ended up stopping at many during our three afternoons and evenings in the city, our favorites included B.B. King’s, Jerry Lee Lewis, Blues City, and Silky O’Sullivan’s.
We did manage to squeeze in some time for food, we were mainly nourished by musicians playing the sounds of W.C. Handy (the city hero generally seen as the Father of the Blues), Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, BB King, Sam and Dave, Chuck Berry and of course, Elvis. All this with a smattering of Blues-influenced musicians including The Doors, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan thrown in.
While we spent our nights in Memphis soaking up the music on Beale Street, we spent the daytime exploring the area. We particularly enjoyed many of the Memphis Museums.
National Civil Rights Museum
This wonderful museum serves as a great complement to Washington’s Museum of African-American History. While the historical section of the D.C. museum focused primarily on the slavery period, with a less thorough treatment of the Civil Rights struggle, this museum moves rather quickly through the pre-Emancipation days to focus on Reconstruction, migration, and especially the various campaigns of the struggle for civil rights. Since the museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated, it is not surprising that it also deals extensively with his role in the battles for Civil Rights.
After a temporary exhibit about the death and hopefully rebirth of the 120-year-old HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and University) Morris Brown College, the museum highlights our country’s culture of slavery:
- From the Triangular Trade that ended up uprooting about 12.5 million Africans to fuel the need for labor in the New World colonies;
- Through the 4 million of those who died in the grueling march across Africa to the ports;
- To the 2.5 million who died in “The Middle Passage” across the Atlantic and
- The roughly three-year lifespan of a slave in the brutal sugarcane fields of the Caribbean and Brazil.
The lifespan of North American slaves in Virginia’s Tobacco fields, Low Country rice plantations were somewhat better. But the lives on post-Louisiana Purchase southern cotton plantations, especially after deployment of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, could be almost as horrid as those in the Caribbean. So great the need of the South’s “King Cotton” culture, that the number of North American slaves grew from about 460,000 in the 150 years from the first import of slaves (in 1619) to 1776, to 1.8 million in 1820 to more than 4 million by the outbreak of the Civil War. In fact, by then, the total value of U.S. slaves had reached about $3.5 billion—more than the value of all U.S. financial, manufacturing and railroad assets combined!
This, of course, is not to say that all Northerners were in favor of abolition. Northerners, after all, built the ships that fueled the slave trade and the import of molasses and rum from the Caribbean, financed and insured these voyages, ate Southern-grown rice, and turned southern-grown cotton into clothes. Is there any wonder why the Southern gentry fought so hard to maintain the institution that made them so wealthy? And why a significant number of wealthy northerners supported them?
After this introduction, a short film highlighted this history and took us through the Civil War, emancipation to 1870, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments which abolished slavery, granted African Americans full citizenship and the right to vote, respectively. It was from here that the museum’s mission of explaining the battle for the actual exercise of these constitutionally-guaranteed rights began. Although this battle was particularly difficult in the south, discrimination was almost as ingrained in the north.
The fight in the south began in the early days of Reconstruction. Federal troops were temporarily posted to protect newly freed slaves against violence and the more subtle, but equally pernicious forms of discrimination, such as in their efforts to get well-paying jobs and especially, the system of Jim Crow laws that pervaded the south. The troops, however, were soon withdrawn. Nor was the African-American cause helped by the U.S. Supreme Court whose 1890 Plessey v Ferguson decision effectively perpetuated segregation and blatant discrimination through the doctrine of “separate but equal”.
African-Americans took a number of actions to help themselves, as through their churches, fraternal organizations, black schools, colleges, unions, and newspapers and coordinating organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League. While some leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, supported such self-help organizations and efforts to gradually improve economic conditions, others, such as W.E.B DuBois advocated much more aggressive actions.
Millions of African-Americans, meanwhile, sought to improve their own situations by leaving the south in favor of Northern Industrial cities, which offered the potential of employment in the rapidly growing number of manufacturing plants after WW I, and again after WW II. While employers actively encouraged and even helped subsidize these moves, white workers were less than enthusiastic about the prospects of blacks taking their jobs, depressing their wages, and moving into their neighborhoods. Discrimination was rife and violence, especially during strikes and riots, sometimes broke out. Overt discrimination and violence continued in the south. In 1964 for example, there were 539 lynchings in Mississippi alone!
African-Americans’ legal rights got a big boost in 1954 with the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision which partially reversed part Plessy v Ferguson by claiming that separate black and white schools were inherently unequal, and mandated integration. A ruling, however, was one thing. Achieving integration within schools and universities was another. There were protests, strikes, and violent reactions against busing in the north as well as the south and numerous politicians (not the least of which is George Wallace) vehemently fought even peaceful efforts at integration.
Leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X often disagreed on the effectiveness of non-violent protests, sit-ins, and boycotts versus more aggressive confrontation, non-violence—albeit in a number of cases, after considerable police and mob violence. But they eventually succeeded in winning public support, presidential intervention, and concessions in battles including:
- Rosa Parks and others efforts to force integrated seating on Montgomery Alabama buses;
- Integrating seating at lunch counters in Greensboro, Montgomery and other cities;
- Peaceful protests against a services of 1963 Ku Klux Klan church bombings that Birmingham police sought to quell by releasing police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses against peaceful protesters, including children;
- Selma to Montgomery voting rights march to which officials responded by ordering police to brutally charge peaceful walkers with horses, clubs and tear gas.
Martin Luther King responded to such effects with ethical and biblical appeals to moderate citizens as in his Notes from a Birmingham Jail and his March on Washington “I have a dream” speech. Violent responses by segregations and police so contrasted with the restraint and conciliatory words of peaceful protesters that public opinion increasingly forced a reluctant President Kennedy to act, as by calling for and intervening in negotiations, calling in troops and after the Freedom Rider incident, in particular, prompted Kennedy to propose a civil rights bill. President Johnson eventually acted more decisively by personally and aggressively lobbying for the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts.
Still, continued discrimination, voting rights suppression, and violence prompted more and more protests and more aggressive African-American action. These included peaceful Black Pride and Black is Beautiful Movements, a more aggressive insistence on black self-defense, as from the Black Panthers, and more strikes, such as that by the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker. It is during this strike, when Martin Luther King came down, that he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. This part of the museum appropriately ends outside Rooms 306 and 307 of the Loraine Motel, where King and his entourage were staying and outside of which he was shot.
It then moves across the street to another site which describes the aftermath of the assassination in terms of the urban riots that spread across the nation, the rapid settling of the strike, the capture, the conviction of James Earl Ray, and the several outstanding questions surrounding the murder.
Rock n Soul Museum
This Smithsonian affiliate is devoted to the history of blues, soul, R&B and rock music. It begins with the music’s roots in rural southern plantations (blues), churches (gospel), cities (jazz and Cajun), and rural sharecropping communities where African-Americans and whites (with their early country and hillbilly musical traditions) shared ideas and cross-fertilized each other’s music. New musical ideas and patterns filtered into the area via battery-powered radios, hand-crank phonograph players, the early days of Grand Ole Opry radio, and traveling musicians playing in minstrel shows, juke joints, honky-tonks, and on street corners, some using home-made instruments such as washboards, kazoos, and washtub bass.
When cotton crops failed during the depression, many rural southerners migrated to cities, with Memphis being one of the primary destinations. Many of the musical traditions that came with them migrated to Beale Street, the primary African-American commercial and entertainment street in the still segregated city. W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues” spurred much of this integration, ragtime began to establish a following and radio stations—both white (as WHBQ and its manic deejay Dewey Phillips) and black (as with WDIA) and even all-woman stations (WHER) began playing music from walk-in artists and records evangelized by pioneers such as Sam Phillips (Sun Records), Jim Stewart (STAX Records) and Ray Harris (Hi Records).
The spread of jukeboxes and by black pastors who integrated their own and others’ music in their services further popularized the music.
After explaining the origins of these hybrid musical styles, the museum portrayed the history and contributions of many of the pioneers of rock and roll. Among the more important and prominent of these were:
- Elvis with his African-American-inspired music and wardrobe and his scandalous movements which thrilled teens (who were beginning to spend huge amounts on entertainment), alienated segregationists and traumatized parents;
- Jerry Lee Lewis with his violent piano style, good looks and uncanny ability to reinvent himself through his scandalous career;
- Johnny Cash, who pioneered a new Nashville style and broke out with his hit, “I Walk the Line”;
- Cordell Jackson, a multi-instrument woman virtuoso who pioneered new ways of playing the electric guitar;
- Carl Perkins, who integrated country, blues and gospel in his ever-popular “Blue Suede Shoes”;
- Ike Turner, a musician, producer and stylist with his first hit, “Rocket 88”;
- Howlin’ Wolf whose great voice and personality helped take blues into new direction, as with his “yodels”;
- Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker and Lester Hill with their guitar and banjo harmonies;
- B.B. King, the legendary blues guitarist who created a personality with his guitars, all of which he named “Lucille”;
- Sam and Dave with their blending of gospel, blues and country;
- Otis Redding through his charisma, pleading vocal style and adaptation of songs from artists from Bing Crosby to the Rolling Stones;
- Isaac Hayes, primarily as a songwriter and secondarily a singer whose gospel-inflected jazz was sung by many Sun and STAX recording stars, whose music for the movie “Shaft” topped album music charts and had been called “Black Moses for the ways his music inspired servicemen in Vietnam;
And this is not even to mention artists including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, or the talented musicians of the bands that accompanied these musicians and singers.
Nor is it to mention the critical foundational roles of Sun, Stax, and Hi records in discovering, and bringing these unknown, ground-breaking artists to market, or even the role of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in exposing millions of teens to this music, often for the first time.
The Cotton Museum is located in the Historic Cotton Exchange Building, which anchor’s the city’s Cotton Row. This row, which defined the city’s role as the country’s “Cotton Capital” contained lines of cotton merchant offices, warehouses, and the ever-important grading rooms—those that had just the right type of light exposure required to determine the grade (color, amount of contaminants, and so forth) of each bale and therefore, the price it could command.
Based primarily in the exchange’s beautiful trading room, the museum relives the pre-computer-era history when prices, tracked from a real-time Western Union telegraph feed from the New York and Atlanta exchanges and tracked on large chalkboards that are still located above the Exchange floor.
Exhibits that track all aspects of the cotton industry occupy the room’s room. Exhibits include explanations of how cotton is grown, the different grades, how it was shipped and stored, and the roles of the neighboring banks and insurance offices that enabled the industry to operate. It explored and provided artifacts of, on one hand, the role and culture of the slaves (and later, sharecroppers) that planted, tended, and picked the cotton and on the other hand, the role and culture of the exclusive (a maximum of 175 at a time) club of Exchange members and the carnivals and jubilees at which the celebrated their privilege.
Displays explained the 7,000 years of cotton-growing and processing history. It showed, how automation has continually transformed all aspects of the industry, from the seeds that are used, through the emergence of crop-dusting (pioneered by the start-up, Delta Airlines) through the use of the steam engine that allowed Southern Mills (which didn’t have access to fast-flowing water power) to mill individual fibers into cloth. Also, how Memphis’ role in the cotton trade made it a crossroads and melting pot of Northern and Southern, as well as African-American and white culture, art, music, and dress.
Another section of the museum drilled into the automation of all phases of the production process and examined the incursion that synthetic fibers had made into the market for cotton and how a well-orchestrated marketing campaign (primarily around the comfort and breathability of cotton) helped to stem the losses, both in clothing and in-home furnishing (which account for one-third of all cotton use). It showed how other cotton plant products, like the husks and the linters are used in markets including livestock feed and industrial products, like paper (including currency) making.
Although these museums were fascinating and critical to understanding the city’s history and culture, what visit to Memphis would be complete without a visit to Graceland? We began with an iPad-guided tour of the 1939 mansion and a portion of the 13.8-acre estate. The tour included the entire first floor (with its custom-furnished living room and eclectically-designed jungle room/den, plus the basement TV/media and incredibly fabric-draped pool room.
After brief tours of two of the outbuildings (Elvis’ father’s office, shooting range, racquetball court), we entered the Trophy House with mementos from the singer’s parents and his own family’s entire lives. We then passed the horse pasture on the way to The King’s kidney-shaped swimming pool and medication garden with graves of Elvis, his parents, and grandmother.
After passing the larger of his two planes (the Lisa Marie, named after his daughter) of which we chose not to tour, we entered the extensive Experience Elvis museum which included exhibits of dozens of his cars (including his famed pink Cadillac), motorcycles, trikes, boats, snowmobiles and so forth, a gallery of costumes of dozens of subsequent singers which were inspired by his jumpsuits. When we finally made it into the Elvis gallery, we were faced with a shelf of artifacts, drawers, and boxes that appeared to contain virtually everything he had owned in his life, down to a plastic thermos!
The galleries explaining and providing mementos of his army life, his singing and movie careers were much more interesting as was a subsequent gallery that explained his relationship with Sam Phillips, who discovered and tirelessly promoted Elvis as well as several other unknown blues/county/rock crossover artists (including Sam Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and others) that he plucked from obscurity and recorded on his Sun Records label. Although Elvis moved to RCA after only 23 singles with Sam, the two apparently remained lifelong friends.
Less interesting, at least to us, were galleries devoted to his daughter’s mementos (Lisa Marie) and memories of her life, of his Tupelo childhood home and church, models of his recording studios, and a very confusing exhibit devoted to Marty Stuart, who we couldn’t quite figure out exactly his connection to Elvis
Although we are glad to have finally seen Graceland and to have learned more about Elvis and his life, the details are clearly intended for people with a much deeper fascination and love of the musician than we. It also appeared that it was much more intent on portraying him as something of as ever thoughtful, dutiful and perpetually kind do-gooder and demi-god, rather than as a man with virtues and flaws. The exhibits and descriptions, for example, portrayed him as ever fit and active, riding horses, swimming, and playing racquetball. It never mentioned his later, greatly overweight, bed-ridden state, that he died of a heart attack at only 42, his heavy drinking, his drug abuse, or the extensive level of drugs in his system when he died. Nor did it mention his deep insecurities or that Pricilla had divorced him. Other than this, and the continual efforts to extract every possible dollar from visitors, we are glad we went once.
Mississippi River Cruise
We took a 1.5-hour tour of the Mississippi River in a paddlewheel boat—powered by fuel oil rather than coal-created steam. While it was interesting and long enough to satisfy our curiosity, it confirm our decision not to seriously consider the nine-day cruise from Memphis to New Orleans (which, because of the river’s many turns, is a 635-mile trip, compared with 400 by car).
In addition to the urban and natural scenery, we learned quite a bit about the river and the current life on the river. This includes how the roughly 2,348 mile-long river drains from 31 states and three Canadian provinces and how the size of the river depends on the amount of rainfall and snowmelt. The depth around Memphis, for example, varies by twenty feet. The size of the river (based on total flow) can change from being the fourth to the fifth-largest in the world, depending on how water flow shifts between Missouri and Mississippi. Normal water flow (about 10 miles per hour) can significantly change depth by creating, expanding, or eroding sandbars (actually mud bars) and the huge amount of soil in the river can add or subtract 50 feet of incredibly fertile soil on the unlevied shoreline of Arkansas (across the river from Memphis). This flow of soil has also buried an estimated 1,200 steamships that have sunk in the river. And these changes are minor compared with how the powerful (estimated 7.5 on the Richter Scale) 1811 New Madrid earthquake changed the course of the river and actually temporarily reversed its flow.
We also learned about life on the river, particularly for the long strings of barges which can carry up to a million tons of cargo and draw up to 12 feet of water (compared to only eight inches when they are empty). We also learned a little about life on the river, where members of the 12-person crews typically work 30-day shifts and earn between $200 (for cooks) and $1,000 (for captains) per day. And how these barges (which can require more than two miles to stop) typically don’t stop from the time they leave until they reach their destinations. When they need to restock, they call their orders ahead and supply boats meet them en route. A crew’s life, however, is far less onerous (not to speak of much more remunerative) than those 19th-century keelboat crews who had to walk or ride horses home since the current and pole-powered boats could only travel downstream. (The boats, by the way, were built from Memphis’ ample hardwood supply and dismantled and used to build cabins in timber-poor Louisiana.
We also learned about the bridges crossing the river, including Memphis’ 1896 railroad bridge (the first bridge across the Water occurred well upstream in 1872) and the large Bass World Pyramid (which was originally built as a stadium for the Memphis Grizzles but soon replaced due to its unsuitability). We also learned that the offshore Mud Island (which contains a Mississippi River Museum and a scale model of the river) was actually created by mud that accumulated around a sunken Civil War gunboat.
Then there’s the story about the worse maritime disaster to have ever occurred in U.S. waters. The explosion of the Sultana, a passenger boat that was carrying Civil War veterans home from the recently ended war, was apparently carrying 2,500 people, far more than its 365-person legal limit. Apparently, the ship’s boiler, which had already been patched four times during the war, failed again. The mechanic repeatedly told the captain that it would be unsafe to repatch it. The captain, anxious to collect government payment in accordance with the number of men he delivered, insisted that it be patched and even gave the mechanic a signed statement that alleviated him of responsibility. An interesting tour that served to convince us that we don’t have to take a longer river cruise.
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