It was dark when we pulled up to the hotel lobby, the city shrouded in that dusty brown color caused by the clash of dull streetlights and shadows. None of us had ever been to Memphis before, in spite of all of our excursions to Tennessee, and we had just two days to get a sense of the city before heading back to Knoxville. Our first stop, of course, was Beale Street in downtown Memphis.
Memphis is one of those cities where the tourist traps truly only come alive at night. We arrived in the afternoon and spent hours in the museum. Although the streets were blocked off to traffic, there were few pedestrians to justify it. Just when we were preparing to leave, however, Beale became a whole other animal. Bands started playing. Singers started singing. A whole army of cart owners hawking sparkling, light-flashing gee gaws descended on the area. The air was rife with the smell of beer and cigarettes. It went from a couple of blocks of history to a stage set for debauchery in seconds.
That combination of music and history was like manna to our souls.There were so many music museums to choose from, but we decided to spend the day at the Museum of Rock and Soul. Should you ever find yourself in Memphis and you have a hankering to not just see artifacts, but also to listen to blues and rock as it was born, nurtured and sent off into the world, then this is the place to go.
The museum begins its exhibits not with the oppression of slavery, but with the impact of poverty and oppression on blacks and whites alike. As a result, the emphasis is more on sharecropping and the cross transference of music like work songs, call and response and gospel paired with the musical cultural legacy of white immigrants. The museum is best experienced by looking at the exhibits while listening to the program for each station. The best part of the experience is that each station includes a sample of music to listen to.
One recurring theme was the impact of migration on American music. Families seeking better economic prospects have moved across the country throughout our nation's history, further encouraging the development of a complex, unique sound.
The most fascinating part of the museum for me was learning about the role of the radio and jukebox in cultivating not just music, but a market and culture without which music could not thrive. We learned about Black radio stations, an all female radio station and how the politics of racism and sexism shaped them.
By the time we got to the Rock and Roll section of the museum, the kids were getting tired and hungry. They enjoyed the music, but wanted to rush through so they could eat.
I was able to have them stop and experience a bit of the Civil Rights Movement, and then they forced me to dash out the door with barely a glance at the final exhibit.
We finished our Beale Street excursion with overpriced and less tasty than mama used to make fried chicken and fried green tomatoes ($50!) before heading back to the parking garage.