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17 May 2014

West Tennessee’s American Soundtrack (part one)

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May 17, 2014 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon

“Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane, Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues In the middle of the pouring rain”

–Walking in Memphis by Marc Cohn

As the world celebrates the Diamond Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll, West Tennessee is now, as it was then, at the heart of its creation and at the nexus of the societal changes that made it possible. When Elvis entered Memphis’ Sun Studio on July 5, 1954 he could have had no idea how his music would change the world. DJ Dewey Phillips fired the opening volley three days later when he aired “That’s All Right” on station WHBQ. 

This “new” sound was a synthesis of all the music that was brought to this country with each new group that landed on its shores. The musical forms mixed, blended and were honed by joy, hardship, spirituality and historic events and West Tennessee is the place where the most complete story of the elements that created the soundtrack of America can best be experienced and most easily understood. When Elvis walked into Sun Studio 60-years ago he was accompanied by countless others who maintained and shared their musical heritage with younger generations. Travelers can still encounter them on the highways and byways of Tennessee.

Old time and roots music has its beginnings in Virginia in the early 1600s with the first settlers, both European and African. Much of the early music was comprised of vernacular folk songs passed down in the oral tradition and songs from Africa. In 1736, the first documented fiddling contest was held in Virginia. Africans also brought with them an instrument referred to as a “banjar” and it would become a mainstay of American music. It was considered a black instrument until 1830 when Joel Sweeney, a white performer, patented the 5-string banjo and went on tour.

Native Americans inhabited the area that is now Memphis for 10,000-years and it was the Chickasaw that DeSoto encountered during his early explorations of the bluffs along the Mississippi. An 1801 treaty allowed settlers to build a road through Chickasaw land, four years later they were paid $20,000 for all the land north of the Tennessee River and in 1818 they ceded all the land north of the southern border of TN, including “Chickasaw Bluffs,” to the US. The Indians, in total, lost more than 20-million acres.

Andrew Jackson, John Overton and James Winchester founded Memphis on the 4th bluff in 1819. The location was ideal for protection against floods and attacks and was a natural port. The city was named Memphis, “place of good abode,” after the Egyptian city. By the 1840s it had become important as a trading point for cotton and in the 1850s it was the largest inland cotton market in the world.

In 1873, a yellow fever epidemic altered the culture of Memphis forever. More than 25,000 people fled and of the 20,000 who remained bout 14,000 were black. The overwhelmingly black population benefitted from the job and political openings left by whites. Robert Reed Church became the first African-American millionaire by purchasing real estate at low rates.

The venerable Peabody Hotel, a Forbes Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond hotel, has reigned over the city since it opened on Union Avenue in 1925. It has hosted every president since Truman, has hosted a plethora of stars, and was the site of Elvis’ prom. The Memorabilia Room, open to the public and part of a Peabody Tour, features artifacts and mementoes that showcase the hotel’s history.

The legendary Peabody ducks are a traditional part of the hotel’s fame. In 1933 hunters returning to Memphis jokingly placed their live duck decoys in the marble Grand Lobby fountain. People so loved the ducks that they were allowed to stay. In 1940 a former Ringling Brothers animal trainer, then a Peabody employee, trained the ducks to march to and from the fountain daily via a red carpet. The March of the Ducks, to the “King Cotton March,” takes place daily at 11 AM and 5 PM. A $200,000 Duck Palace atop the Peabody is where the Duckmaster trains and tends the ducks during their 3-month tenure. Duck is never on the hotel’s menu.

Traditionally the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, MS. Early delta musicians relocated from rural villages and farms bringing with them their unique songs and sounds. The place to make your mark was Memphis and Beale Street was at its soul. Here legends strode the street and learned from one another.

Beale Street was always one of the city’s major arteries. In the mid-1800s cotton was transported along the street from the river. By the 1920s it was the main shopping and entertainment street for African Americans in the region. 

A statue of W. C. Handy, 200 Beale St., and his home, 325 Beale St., are at one end of the street and one of Elvis, Beale and Main St., at the other, anchor Beale Street. There are more than 30 venues in between and visitors can dine, shop and listen to music all within a 3-block area. The entire historic district is 15-blocks. Handy wrote the first blues song, “Mister Crump” there in 1909 and 68-years later the US Congress designated Beale Street the “Home of the Blues.”

One of the most fun ways to explore Beale is on the “Tastin’ Round Town Barbecue Tour of Memphis.” The tour includes tastings at the most renowned restaurants, the history of barbecue and the regional differences, city history and lots of humor. I challenge you to eat at every stop! 

Siblings Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records in 1958. In 1960 they purchased an old movie theater on McLemore Avenue and in 1961 they changed the name to Stax. The label fostered such talent as Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers and Otis Redding.

Soulsville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a 17,000-sq. ft. museum housed on the site of the former studio. It is the only museum dedicated to soul music in the world. The self-guided tour takes you through a comprehensive history of soul music with an emphasis on all the influences that contributed to its development. After a brief orientation film visitors enter a series of thematic galleries filled with memorabilia, information panels, interactive kiosks and audio and video stations. 

The first gallery features Hooper Chapel AME Church. The church, originally in Duncan, MS, was relocated to the museum to showcase the spiritual roots of secular music. Additional highlights include a fully equipped dance floor on which you can practice your Soul Train moves, artists’ costumes and Isaac Hayes’ powder blue 1972 Cadillac Eldorado complete with shag carpets and gold plating. You can spend a day here in the galleries and the gift shop.

Sam Phillips founded Sun Studio in January of 1950 with the idea of recording all types of music without regard to color. In 1951 Ike turner recorded “Rocket 88” there and some believe this to be the first rock and roll recording. Two years later Elvis made a recording and the honorific, “The Birthplace of Rock “n” Roll was secured and music began to appeal to a broader audience. Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ record contract to RCA for $35,000 in 1955. Over the course of Elvis’ career he made more than 30 films and sold more than 1-billion records.

The studio tour features Elvis and the African American roots of rock and roll through displays and music audio tracks. Tours of the still active studio begin on the second floor where cases feature Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, B. B. King, the Million Dollar Quartet and other seminal blues, gospel and rock and roll artists. The final stop is a photo op and an opportunity to make your own recording. Sun Studio is a National Historic Landmark open daily for

A pilgrimage to Graceland is a daylong experience if you plan to visit all of the exhibits, the mansion, automobile museum and custom jets. The complex also includes restaurants, shops, Graceland RV Park & Campground, and the Heartbreak Hotel complete with Elvis themed suites. There are three options for mansion tour tickets. Tickets can be purchased online.

Slave Haven Museum is located inside the 1856, seven room, wooden home of Jacob Burkle. It is believed that Burkle, a German immigrant, moved to Memphis and built the home for the express purpose of establishing an Underground Railroad station. Tours of the house begin in the foyer where the middle passage and slavery in the region are interpreted with paintings, artifacts, maps and historic handbills and posters. Visitors are then seated for a comprehensive retelling of the methods and devices used by fugitive slaves. Particular attention is paid to the quilt codes, the use of music in escape attempts and the banning of the use of the talking drum. The last stop on the tour is a trip to the basement with access to a tunnel where fugitives were hidden. Other areas in the house are highlighted for their use as hiding places.

The Burkle Estate is managed by Heritage Tours of Memphis. They offer a series of tours including Memphis Civil Rights, Memphis Music Heritage and Memphis City Sights. Tours must be prearranged and can be customized.

The National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) opened on September 28, 1991 inside Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The museum was expanded in 2002 and in 2008 the museum began a $27.5-million renovation. On April 5, 2014 the museum reopened to the public interpreting black history from 1619 to the present. The museum is now fully interactive and immerses visitors in the African American cultural experience. More than 250 artifacts and 40 films are on view. “Movement to Overcome,” the 7,000-lb sculpture designed to represent the struggle, continues to grace the lobby. The museum has won numerous prestigious awards and has been a category on “Jeopardy.”

The NCRM is so phenomenal that it is difficult to choose which exhibits are not to be missed. My personal favorites are the life-sized diorama of a portion of a slave ship, walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge and a Black Panther outfit. An entire gallery is devoted to the music that energized, sustained and propelled the movement and you are invited to flip through the albums and listen to the music at an individual listening station. The tour culminates with a view of King’s actual room as it looked when he was killed.

The Legacy Museum is directly across the street from the main building of the NCRM and incorporates the boarding house from which James Earl Ray shot Dr. King. The building is entered through a tunnel that is filled with a timeline. The exhibits are on the second floor and here visitors can see replicas of the bathroom from which Ray shot and his room. A replica of his Mustang is in an adjacent gallery. The remaining galleries are devoted to his pursuit and capture.

Restaurant Iris and The Second Line are two award-winning restaurants that are perfect to round out a trip to Memphis. Chef Kelly English, who has been featured on the Food Network and has been voted Memphis “Best Chef,” owns both. Restaurant Iris presents French-Creole cuisine while the more casual The Second Line features New Orleans iconic dishes. I strongly recommend the shrimp and grits. and 

Leaving Memphis we will be going deeper into West Tennessee in search of the music, people and places that influenced our culture and the sites where that story is best understood. America’s soundtrack continues to evolve, but its roots remain in the Tennessee soil.

I wish you smooth travels!

Travel Tips: 

The annual Harriet Tubman Conference will be held in Cambridge, Maryland from June 13-14, 2014. Information n registration is available online and on Facebook.

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