Walking in Memphis

Posted: July 30, 2008 in Uncategorized

In Sun Studio

“They’ve got catfish on the table / They’ve got gospel in the air / And Reverend Green be glad to see you / When you haven’t got a prayer / You’ve got a prayer in Memphis.” – Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis

I quit buying my daughters birthday presents years ago and started getting them memories instead. It all began when I took Erica to the House of Blues in New Orleans for her fourteenth birthday where we stood in the middle of thousands of screaming teenage girls to see O’Town in concert. Since then, Erica and I have gone on all sorts of adventures: from stalking a soccer star in Dallas to watching championship tennis in Miami. When Hillary turned six, I began the same tradition with her. We’ve spent birthday trips in places like St. Louis, Mobile, and New Orleans. Recently, we added Memphis to our repertoire of memories.

We began with the simple plan of watching the Memphis Redbirds play baseball at AutoZone Park, but it grew a bit from there. We drove over early, dropped by the Welcome Center to get some ideas, and ended up with more ideas than we had both time and money so we had to pick our favorites. We began with lunch on Beale Street at the Blues City Cafe where Hillary had the “World’s Best Tamales” (that’s my girl!) and me and my acid reflux chose the Southern Catfish Dinner instead. None of us complained. From there we strolled over to the Rock & Soul Museum to wander through music artifacts from the Smithsonian and learn about the rich history of music in Memphis. Afterwards, we got kicked out of the FedEx Forum (kicked out very politely I might add – southern hospitality is alive and well), and drove down to tour the very cool Sun Studio where Elvis was discovered and rock & roll music was born. We ended up at the Redbirds game that evening after all, followed by a late night drive back to my inlaws singing goofy songs at the top of our lungs. As the MasterCard commercial says, priceless. As my Visa statement will read, about $130.

I grew up eighty miles from Memphis and, as familiarity works, never appreciated it. I read in the newspaper that Ahmad Rashad’s daughter didn’t know he played football until a friend told her in junior high. I didn’t know Memphis was the center of the world until, say, this trip.

Learning about the birth of rock & roll music was fascinating. Although Memphis has the unfortunate distinction of shooting Dr. King off the mountaintop, it in many ways served as the harbinger of positive race relations. Though music. On a video, I listened to a black studio producer say that people had always told him that black and white people could not work together, but that the music scene in Memphis proved otherwise.

And I finally got Elvis. I grew up with the fat and sweaty Elvis and was just a kid when he died. I remember sitting in my backyard contemplating the news of his death in 1977, probably the first death I ever contemplated. I knew something monumental had happened, but to me, Elvis was gaudy clothes and drug overdoses and music my parents liked, and I didn’t grasp any real significance in it all. Over time, I learned he had something to do with rock & roll music and a leg that didn’t know how to remain still and girls screaming their lungs out, but that didn’t do much for me either. Until this trip to Memphis.

Elvis was the bridge between both races and generations, not a bad feat to pull off for a delivery truck driver from Mississippi. In the 1950s South, when America went into labor, it was Elvis who served as the delivery room doctor. He gave birth to a style of music that bridged the gap between the blues of the blacks and the country of the whites and set a generation free from it’s dividing lines. And say what you will, but I for one pause and give thanks.

The best photo-op on the Sun Studio tour was the site marked by a duct tape X where Elvis Presley gave birth to a new nation, founded in melodies, and dedicated to the proposition that music can change the world. Our tour guide said that Bob Dylan came to Memphis a few years back, walked into Sun Studio, bent over and kissed that exact spot on the floor, then got up and walked out.

I completely understand.

  1. wjcsydney says:

    Great post, Al. We do the memories for presents too. MissN (13) got a subscription to the Bell Shakespeare Company for her Christmas present (3 plays, 3 tickets – her dad and I had to come along too!) and a camp for her birthday present.

    I loved your evocation of Memphis. “Walk the Line” introduced me to Memphis.. even though I knew it was the home of Elvis, and have sung the Paul Simon “Graceland” for years now..

    I’m sure Hillary will share this day with her grandchildren!

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