Walking in Memphis

Memphis trolley car

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as I boy can be

I was sporting silver flip-flops, not blue suede shoes, when I touched down in Memphis for the first time. Lucky for me, I arrived in the middle of a heat wave – no pouring rain in sight. Ever since my weekend in Memphis, this song by Marc Cohn has been playing on repeat in my head. I have always loved it, but as I listened closely to the lyrics, I realized how much more sense the song made after my first visit to the land of the Delta Blues.

BB Kings

Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel

Beale Street.  Or, as I like to think of it, Memphis’ version of Bourbon Street. I strolled along the famous blocks for the first time early on a Saturday morning, wanting to take it all in without the cacophony of the evening crowds.  I wasn’t alone, as I thought I might be. City workers picked up garbage from the night before, a restaurant owner or two arrived at work for the day (including one who saw me walking a few blocks away and commented on how fast I was walking) and a social worker-type guy named Sylvester rode his bicycle up and down the street.

Sylvester

Sylvester rode in circles around me as he asked if I was a fan of the Blues. After answering with a resounding “of course,” I fell silent when he followed up by asking me who the father of the Blues was. Um, being from Chicago, I should know that, right? Sylvester didn’t hold my ignorance against me and instead led me over to a statue off Beale of who I can only assume was W.C. Handy (as later research revealed that he is considered the father of the Blues). There, he rattled off a list of bars for me to check out and made sure I was going to Graceland before explaining to me what he was doing on Beale Street at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday – rounding up men who were sleeping in a nearby park and bringing them to a homeless shelter. After securing a $7 donation from me to sponsor a bed for a man (I’m assuming he was legit), Sylvester rode back up Beale Street as I headed in the opposite direction, in search of the bus to Graceland.

Graceland sign

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
And I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered ‘round his tomb
But there’s a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the jungle room

Elvis and Graceland. Graceland and Elvis. You really can’t visit Memphis without seeing references to the King everywhere you go – and you really can’t leave without paying a visit to Graceland.

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

A short ride out of the city center, Graceland is more than just a mansion. Indeed, while it was vaguely interesting to see where Elvis had once lived, I was more intrigued by the adjacent trophy room and the exhibits across the street chronicling the highlights and lowlights in his life. See, I didn’t know much about Elvis before visiting Memphis. I wasn’t that woman standing in the trophy room with tears in her eyes mumbling about how much she loved him before quietly singing the lyrics to all of the singles hanging on the wall.Jungle Room

Trophy room

Elvis grave, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Rather, I was the visitor who was striving to learn a little about Elvis – to discover something beyond the Elvis impersonators and conspiracy theories about Elvis still being alive. So seeing the Jungle Room (as cool as it was with its green carpet on the ceiling) didn’t mean as much as the exhibit about his conquering of Las Vegas or his role in promoting calm amid the chaos of 1968. I was so fascinated by the time I left Graceland two hours later that I found myself buying a copy of Elvis’ biography to learn more.

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
But boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis

Stax Museum

The Stax Museum, not far from Graceland, is the only museum in the world dedicated to soul music – music that was born in the church and the cotton fields in the 1950s as a mix of jazz, blues and gospel.  But before visiting the Stax Museum, I’m not sure I could have defined it for you – I knew as little about soul music as I did about Elvis. So I soaked up an introductory film and then took my time perusing dozens of displays chronicling the development of soul music over the years.

Stax records

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
And I said “Ma’am I am tonight.”

Outside Sun Studio

While I spent so much time in Memphis learning about its role in the development of gospel, soul, blues and rock’n’roll, I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t actually make it to a show while I was in town! After a delayed flight and a late dinner on Friday night, I was tired and wanted to rest up for a long day of sightseeing on Saturday. And after visiting Graceland, the Stax Museum and Sun Studio, grabbing some barbeque for dinner and taking a nighttime ghost tour, I had nothing left in the tank. I made one last walk up and down Beale Street and then had to call it a night. After all, I still had one more day to explore the land of the Delta Blues and a lot that I still wanted to see.

Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee

Beale Street at night

Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel

 
Thank you to the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau for providing me with complimentary passes to Graceland, the Stax Museum and multiple other attractions I visited during my weekend visit. Opinions, as always, are my own.
 

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8 thoughts on “Walking in Memphis”

  1. Katie, I’m glad you were able to get a bit of a music education in Memphis. It’s an important city in the history of modern music as well as a great foodie destination. I love Elvis and Graceland (I worked there in college) but there is so much more to Memphis than the King of Rock. I’m glad you got to see some of it.

  2. Cool visit. This would be a good trip for someone like me who know very little about the blues or Elvis or Memphis. Looks almost very interesting there.

  3. Love your post to the Walking in Memphis song. It was in my head for days after we left.

    I love music and appreciate music, which is why this city was on my bucketlist. I wanted to go to Stax (huge Otis Redding Fan), but we ended up not having time. My favorite part was listening to the two guys on Beale’s street playing drums and guitar, while the backdrop of club, drop your butt songs played loudly on the street for everyone to dance. I did like Sun Studios (huge Johnny Cash fan). We didn’t get in to Graceland, because it was an hour and half wait and we weren’t that big Elvis fans. So, we took our picture in front of the house. Seeing where MLK was shot was emotional, but way too packed. Overall, I liked Memphis alot, but it wasn’t what I expected.

    And I took the customary Walking in Memphis shot. Loved it.

  4. Memphis has been on my list for awhile and now you’ve definitely convinced me to go. It’s also good to hear that you enjoyed Graceland despite not knowing much about Elvis. I’m in the same boat and was wondering if it was worth going to.

    Thanks!

  5. Thanks for this post – we will be traveling through Memphis in December. We’ve never been so enjoyed reading your tips!

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