98. Musical Travels – Memphis, TN: A Crossroads of Rock, Soul, Country, and the Blues
In the month since the Sugarmill Music Festival, I have enjoyed time at home in Louisiana and have also embarked on a few road trips. There was the voyage to south Louisiana where I explored the colonial history and early statehood of Louisiana in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, St. Francisville, Grand Isle, and Biloxi, MS. I also ventured to Monroe for their annual festival, New Music on the Bayou. I made trips to Natchitoches and Shreveport too, to see friends and family and also visit natural and historic sites. Finally, on Thursday, June 21, I started making my way back north—with one last Louisiana stop at Poverty Point—before arriving in Memphis late that evening. Memphis has now become home to my friend, Matt Petty, who just last month premiered my Trombone Concertino, Op. 19b at Nachtmusik Alexandria. It was great to catch up with Matt and also see some of the musical landmarks of Memphis during my stay.
Memphis is a place with a rich musical history, although totally apart from the Western classical tradition I know so well. Instead it has been a crossroads of rock, soul, country, and the blues. Whereas blues flowed north from the rural African-American communities of the Mississippi Delta, country music as well as gospel flowed west from the rural white communities of central Tennessee, northeastern Mississippi, and other nearby locales. Both communities—black and white—sought recording opportunities in the urban center that is Memphis. Sun Studio became the birthplace of rock when Elvis Presley, producer Sam Phillips, and their associates combined country and gospel with the rhythm and blues of the 1950s. Slightly later STAX Records emerged as the home of southern soul when that blues again reinvented itself by drawing on the rich ensemble sound and powerful conviction of African-American church music. I had two full days in Memphis—Friday, June 22 and Saturday, June 23—to explore these and other musical destinations; Matt joined me when he could. Slowly but surely, I came to terms with this musical heritage and with the city of Memphis.
Friday morning I took a driving tour of suburban Memphis with Graceland, the mansion home of Elvis, as my destination even though I had no intention of taking the home tour itself. We had taken the tour some ten years earlier on a family vacation and were seriously underwhelmed, especially considering the steep price of admission. Still, I wanted a few photos. This was actually my third Elvis stop over the past few weeks after seeing the Elvis Birthplace in Tupelo, MS on my drive down from Louisville and the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium where he performed on the Louisiana Hayride and there is now a statue in his honor. Matt joined me in the afternoon for a tour of the STAX Museum. Located at the old STAX Records, the museum explores the history of African-American music from slave times and the spiritual before moving into blues and the studio’s own history as progenitor of southern soul. Although I knew much of the earlier history, I was mostly unaware of the specific contributions of STAX. Evidently this had been where such names as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, and house band Booker T. and the MGs had all recorded. The museum also had exhibits on the wider history of soul, including its innovators James Brown, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke, as well displays on southern soul’s smoother northern cousin, Motown, hailing from Detroit. Also detailed was STAX’s increased involvement in the Civil Rights Movement following the assassination of Martin Luther King in downtown Memphis; STAX itself, I should add, had been a multiracial enterprise since its inception and became even more integrated as it grew. Matt and I were both thoroughly impressed by the STAX Museum, and I left with two CDs: a survey of African-American gospel on Smithsonian Folkways and the Green Onions album by Booker T. and the MGs. In the evening, I found the historic plaque outside the church where Johnny Cash gave his first performance—in the Cooper-Young neighborhood near Matt’s home—and took a second driving tour of downtown and the Mississippi River shoreline.
On Saturday I returned to downtown for a tour of Sun Studio. I enjoyed this tour too, especially seeing the artifacts—the 1950s recording technology and plenty of LPs—but there was something less authentic here, more touristy than STAX. Perhaps it was merely the presence of Elvis! I particularly enjoyed learning about the Million Dollar Quartet session which took place here on December 4, 1956 when Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all showed up to the studio and began jamming; these four were then the biggest names in rock and were all signed to Sun. From there I headed to Beale Street which had been at the center of an African-American entertainment district at the turn of the twentieth century. This was then the place in Memphis to hear blues, and still Beale Street has many music clubs. Nevertheless, much of historic Beale Street has been torn-down and rebuilt as an exploit in urban redevelopment and, I would argue, racial suppression too. Today it feels more like an artificial French Quarter, with just as many places to get drunk as Bourbon Street but little of the Quarter’s history. Still I enjoyed walking Beale Street, particularly seeing the W. C. Handy Statue and his small house, which has been moved to its eastern end. Handy, regarded as “The Father of the Blues,” was actually a ragtime bandleader and trumpeter who integrated the lowdown blues he heard in the Delta into his compositions. Before urban whites knew real blues, Handy, therefore, made for an attractive predecessor to the classic blues of Bessie Smith, the pseudo-ragtime of Irving Berlin, and the jazz of Louis Armstrong and others who would regularly play and record Handy’s music. Regardless of the deceptive nickname, I have certainly enjoyed listening to Handy’s music and acknowledge its importance. I was glad to find these sites on Beale Street, and they were a much-needed relief to the gentrified bar environs surrounding them.
Before leaving Beale Street, a jazz funeral passed through, led by a small group of musicians. From there I walked past the former Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated and to the Blues Hall of Fame. There were an assortment of artifacts here, and I enjoyed reading more about blues history and its major figures. Familiar names like Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, and Robert Johnson were among its first inductees in 1980. The Father of Blues, W. C. Handy, however, had to wait until 2010 for his induction. Afterwards I continued to explore the historic district, including a stop at Chickasaw Bluff Number Four, to learn a little about Memphis’s Native American history and to overlook the Mississippi once more. Matt and I caught up for dinner at another Memphis destination, Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, a worthy but touristy barbecue restaurant. In the evening I attended a production of Dream Girls in which Matt was playing trombone in the pit orchestra. As Matt pointed out, Dream Girls, a fictionalization of Motown group The Supremes’ performing career, contained many of the same elements which made the history of the STAX Museum so compelling—the racial tension, the pitfalls of success, etc. It gave me one more exposure to African-American music as well as the Memphis art scene, making for a fitting conclusion to my stay.
Matt and I visited over breakfast the next morning, before I hit the road for Louisville, this time exploring New Madrid, MO and Cairo, IL before trekking eastward into Kentucky. I was glad for Matt’s hospitality and hope his home in Memphis can become a regular stopover for me on drives from Louisville to Louisiana—Memphis is an easy halfway point, and it lets us continue to build our friendship. Already though, my two days in Memphis gave me plenty of musical sites to explore and enjoy! Update: Within a few months of my original post, Matt began working at the STAX Museum as a tour guide. He seems to be enjoying the work so far, and it looks like there are opportunities for him to take on increased responsibilities over time.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a graduate student pursuing his master’s degree in musicology at the University of Louisville where, in April 2017, he was awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, Louisiana following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” From 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria, and since that time has remained concert annotator for presenters of classical music across Louisiana. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He recently shared this research in March 2018 at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. Also a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into compositions which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His compositions have been performed at the Sugarmill Music Festival and New Music on the Bayou. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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