“You boys wanna hear some live blues? Head on over to Red’s, starts about 9 o’clock,” said Roger Stolle when we visited his Cats Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store in Clarksdale. Red Paden’s Juke Joint is arguably the last of the real Mississippi Delta juke joints, set downtown between a weedy graveyard and the eastern bank of the Sunflower River. Sadly, we had to get back to Memphis and had to content ourselves enjoying a spectacular sunset behind us as we drove back on Highway 61, the sky changing colour magnificently from red to magenta to purple.
I’d met up with two friends from Texas a few days earlier in Memphis. Bob and Steve and I had met just over a year earlier in Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio, where we’d all come to see Sean McConnell and his band. That was a great gig, by the way – if you don’t know Sean McConnell’s upbeat Americana, go check him out. We’d got on well in our chance meeting, and Bob, very hospitably had invited me to his family’s Thanksgiving a few days later. So, after keeping in touch for the next year, here we were to explore Memphis and the blues. The Irish guy showing the Americans the home of the blues.
I woke up in my hotel in Memphis the first morning to glorious blue skies, a great view over the Mississippi River and – what the heck is that? Yes, an enormous pyramid overlooking the river. It turned out to a huge Bass Pro megastore and hotel. Apparently, it’s the 10th largest pyramid in the world, no kiddin’. Bass Pro, if you don’t know, is a chain of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ stores all across the US, particularly in the South. On visiting the store, I was astonished at the amount of gear associated with these pursuits, and utterly appalled at the gun section, where available for purchase were every conceivable hand-gun or rifle, including military style semi-automatic weapons. Deeply unsettling.
But Memphis is a great town. Beale Street may have become sanitized and tourist-friendly, but it’s got a lot of great eating establishments with live music every night, including B.B. King’s Blues Club. If you go, check out Blues City Café just across the road for some great bar-b-que ribs. Our best night for music was in Rum Boogie, seeing a band called Young Petty Thieves, who did the most original covers I’ve ever heard along with their own bluesy, Americana music. These guys deserve to be heard more widely.
You’re never short of things to do in Memphis. We had a great visit to the Gibson Guitar Factory, given the tour by the fast-talking and friendly Kyle (whose name, when he said it seemed to have about four syllables). I enjoyed sampling the finished article in the store afterwards, lusting after one of the Gibson Memphis ES-335s we’d seen being made – largely by hand – in the factory. At over four thousand dollars, I decided against an immediate purchase.
Across the road is the outstanding Rock’n Soul Museum which tells the complete story of Memphis music history, as researched by the Smithsonian Institution. And an absolute highlight was our visit to Sun Studio, “the birthplace of Rock’n Roll.” Graham, our host on the tour, was a goldmine of terrific stories about the early history of the Studio, featuring Sam Phillips who discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s a piece of musical history not to be missed. I loved the radio booth exhibit belonging to pioneering disk jockey, Dewey Phillips, whose Red, Hot and Blue show attracted 100,000 listeners in the 1950s and helped launch the career of Elvis Presley. He was reputed to play repeatedly on his show records that he liked, and to lift the needle off records he wasn’t appreciating and to smash them live on air.
Most moving in Memphis is the National Civil Rights Museum. Set in the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it is a gripping history of black America from slavery to the Civil Rights movement. The story of the injustice and suffering of this community is pains-takingly told, with exhibits that I found utterly absorbing. We looked at our watches after 3 hours and were surprised at where the time had gone. One story amongst many struck me forcibly – that of six-year-old Ruby Bridges who braved a hateful crowd of protesters in New Orleans, on her first day of attendance at the all-white William Frantz Elementary on November 1960. After she arrived, white parents pulled their children out of school and teachers refused to teach her. The courage of this little girl was remarkable, never crying or whimpering, despite the vile hatred she had to endure, including threats of poisoning.
The tour concludes with you passing by the room MLK was staying in that fateful day in April 1968 and being able to look on to the balcony at the spot where he was slain. Very moving. Across the road is the final part of the Museum’s tour, situated in the building from where his assassin, James Earl Ray, took the shot. You can look across the road from the bathroom window from where he shot, the balcony outside MLK’s room in the Lorraine Motel in full view. We didn’t linger too long over the exhibits detailing the various conspiracy theories that arose after Ray’s conviction, blaming the US government, the Mafia or the Memphis police for King’s death.
We had lunch a few blocks away at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, where I was able to sample some authentic Southern cooking – fried okra, sweet potato pie, greens, and gumbo. Pretty tasty. On other occasions I sampled catfish and tamales – “hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes I got ’em for sale.” And, of course, there was the endless offerings of barbeque chicken or pulled pork. Well, I did enjoy all this soul food, but have to admit, after a few days I was longing for a plain cheese sandwich.
Before we left Memphis I was intrigued to visit Schwabs’ 1950s style Soda Fountain on Beale Street. Here you can get phosphate sodas, milkshakes and soda jerks, buy a souvenir tee-shirt and browse toys some of us remember from our childhood in the 50s and 60s – catapults and balsa wood gliders with elastic sprung propellers, Chinese checkers and jacks. It’s a nostalgic walk back into time, definitely worth the visit.
Memphis is a laid-back town where everybody has time for you, and you always feel welcome. A great place from which to launch our visit to the Delta.
[to be continued…]