Tennessee · USA

Week 19 – Walking in Memphis

Memphis, in the words of Marc Cohen in the song he made famous (Walking in Memphis), is the home of the delta blues. And Elvis.

Rock n’ Roll, soul and the blues

Music made this city and is a big part of why so many tourists come here. ‘Beale Street’ is the main place to hear the blues, as well as soul too. It seems pretty commercialised these days, and a lot more white than it was from what I have read. In the ‘Rock & Soul’ Museum, I learnt all about the history of the blues, soul and rock & roll and how Beale Street was a largely black community. In the days of segregation, black people bought and ran businesses here, and also played the music they loved. This music originated in the fields, where their ancestors had worked as slaves.

Beale Street
Beale Street

So much of what I have seen and heard in the south has been influenced by slavery.

The blues were essentialy created by W.C. Handy, a black musician from Alabama. He wrote and recorded what’s acknowledged to be the first blues record, ‘Memphis Blues’. Lots of other artists began their careers here, for example Al Green and of course Elvis.

The influence of Elvis is everywhere. Rock & Roll music, which he personified, was essentially black music that white people took and popularised. I’d never really thought before how much of Elvis’ music is influenced by black culture.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

The Rock and Soul museum is really interesting, definitely worth a visit. You watch a film all about the blues and soul, and then they give you a self guided tour to go round the museum, it also allows you play lots of great songs too. Interesting exhibits too on Stax records and the prejudice that black musicians faced/face.

Wurlitzer jukebox
Wurlitzer jukebox

National Civil Rights Museum and Martin Luther King

One of the most interesting and moving experiences I have had on my trip was visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. Housed in the Lorraine Motel where Dr King was assassinated on 4 April 1968, the museum is a fantastic testament to the struggles that black people have undergone in the US.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis
The Lorraine Motel in Memphis

The museum highlights various pivotal moments in African American history, included events in Selma, Birmingham and Memphis. Standing in the room where Dr King was killed was a profoundly moving experience. Another particularly emotional exhibit allows you to feel how the young people of the south might have felt when they staged a non-violent sit-in in cafes across the south, to protect against segregation. You can also sit on a replica bus of the one that Rosa Parks sat on, when she refused to give up her seat to a white person. Bearing in mind how recent this history is, it is somewhat difficult to believe this all happened.

Protestors in the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968
Protestors in the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968

I visited the museum on the day of the Trump inauguration. It felt very ironic and symbolic too, considering the things he has said about ethnic minorities. I hope America does not take a step backwards with regards to civil rights, including LGBT rights.

A quote I have always loved from Dr King is ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere‘.


Of course, like every other city I have visited, Memphis has a great art gallery, the Brooks Art Museum. Bit of a journey out of town to visit but well worth it. One artist I discovered is a local Tennessee artist called Carroll Cloar. Born in 1913, he made his name painting surreal images of the southern landscapes and the people who lived there. A couple of his paintings are below.

Wedding Party, Carroll Cloar, 1971
Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog, Carroll Cloar, 1965

Next stop, Nashville.

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