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Musical Memphis

Published
August 23, 2021
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I MADE sure I would be off the train for a while in Memphis. It had been an equally long while since I had visited that city. I was eager to see how it had changed as well, and if it had changed as much as New Orleans (hopefully, not). The last time I was there I had done a heap of touristy things, like visit Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland.

On the way, I had passed through Jackson, the capital of the State of Mississippi, and got some photos of it as it went by. Nicknamed ‘the city with soul’, it was a city I found fascinating even though I was peering at it from a train window.

After that, it was just the train rattling along through green rustic countryside and past small towns and the odd house. Then the city lights of Memphis grew larger on the horizon and the next thing I was rolling into the state of Tennessee at 10 o’clock at night.

I stayed at Pilgrim House Hostel in Memphis, which had no-alcohol policy. That was a relief for me after the hostel I had stayed at in the New Orleans French Quarter. That hostel was crazy and everything and anything happened. Anyway, I found out then that some hostel accommodation apps didn’t work, and I was having more success with booking.com and hotels. com on my phone.

Memphis sits on the Mississippi River and has a metro area population of around 1.3 million people. Its most famous citizen, so far, has been Elvis Presley.

In downtown Memphis and New Orleans, their main streets are now used mainly for tourist entertainment. You can’t meet the locals in ordinary shops anymore, as you could twenty-odd years ago. Now it’s just like one big commercial tourism strip with eateries and nothing else. Queenstown in New Zealand suffers from a similar over-touristification. But if anything, it’s more serious in cities famous for their past culture, which gets killed off, whereas Queenstown trades on its scenery.

On the other hand, the renewal and revitalisation of Memphis’s inner- city riverfront is amazing, and technology firms have taken root in Memphis as well. There has been a huge uplift since I was there last.

I went to Sun Studios and went on a tour. We were greeted by a bubbly 20-something year old, with bright blonde hair and a wicked smile who was to be our tour guide. She introduced herself as Jayne.

She turned out to be one of the best tour guides I had during the trip, she was just so lively and vibrant and brought the music alive! She was a musician herself and was working on her first album.

It was interesting to compare, say, Johnny Cash as a songwriter, to Elvis who just sang the songs that other people composed. I think there is a definite difference to someone’s music when they actually write their own songs. In the studios, they pointed out famous musicians of the past such as Howlin’ Wolf! What a name! There was a bit of information about the guy who signed up Elvis, Sam Phillips. He had worked at Sun Studios only for a year before signing up an 18-year-old Elvis Presley who used to sing casually with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, they were all around the same era.

Another place I made it to was called the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The guide talked about how during the thirties, forties and fifties a lot of African Americans working on the cotton fields moved to Memphis as part of the so-called ‘Great Migration’ northward, which was triggered by the mechanization of southern farms.

Memphis at that time was a city with a longstanding musical tradition already, although its early musical traditions had been European. In any case, Memphis stood only just to the north of the Mississippi Delta, a stretch of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the state of Mississippi where the soil was rich but the people were poor, and still are.

Many ended up in northern cities, but quite a few who were of a musical bent stopped in Memphis.

The Mississippi Delta is where a lot of the really good old-time blues musicians came from (‘Delta Blues’). The name is really confusing because the Delta is not the same as the geographical delta of the Mississippi that pokes out into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans.

My hostel was about five kilometres out of downtown Memphis, and I toured the next day with a lot of people. There is a lot of poverty in this area, partly because, in the past, not enough was done to encourage non- agricultural forms of industry in case it attracted workers away from the farms. In fact, industrial development was positively discouraged by local white elites.

One thing that really startled me was a sign I saw along one of the walkways by the river. It was a tribute set out on Thanksgiving to the Native American Tribes who had been wrongfully evicted from the land.

Many of the native tribes who had once lived there were evicted. They called it “The Trail of Tears. The sign was quite a shock to the system, it was heart-breaking.

The native Americans of this area had been known as the Five Civilized Tribes, because they practiced a settled agriculture and lived in towns and villages near the Mississippi and in the American South before the coming of the first Europeans. This way of life has also come to be known as the Mississippian culture. Native Americans of the Mississippian culture had become quite westernised by the 1830s.

Even so, the whites still wanted their land. And so, the settled nations of the Mississippian culture were packed off to modern-day Oklahoma to live among buffalo-hunting tribes, who in their turn were starved out when the whites started shooting all their buffalo from trains for what was misnamed as sport — but that’s another railway story.

To round off the story of my second visit to Memphis, there were also tours you could do on the river. But I had done that before, and I decided to head on up to Chicago.

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