Greetings Five-O fans, and welcome to Part 2 of a journey thorough the South. This week, we’re going deep into Dixie. While you were all pulling crackers, exchanging sock gifts, and dribbling through a post turkey coma, I was riding a bejewelled, tinsel-tastic pink bicycle through Mississippi and into Tennessee.
ME AND THE MUSIC
If there’s one thing I learnt at University, it wasn’t that you could be drinking tequila out of shoe in Fulham at 3am, and still make rowing training at 6am, no, no – It was that any piece of well constructed discourse worth it’s salt, should be adequately supported with quotes. And what better scripture to use as a foundation for this week’s round up, than Marc Cohen’s “Walking in Memphis.” So, here we go.
I was beyond excited about the trip to Memphis. Being from White Middle class Kingston upon Thames, I was naturally raised on a mixture of Country, Reggae, Blues and Soul music (I’m joking. That’s not natural, it’s verging in child abuse). Shania Twain was my sunshine. Motown – my lifeblood. The Eagles – my Oxygen. I’m not a musical person per se, but I do love music. And I mean real music. Lyrics that make the hairs on your neck stand on end and a beat that sends your restless foot into a fidget frenzy. And for the real music lover, Memphis is a must.
Memphis, is set deep in what’s known as the ‘Delta’ – an area of alluvial land characterised by frequent flooding of the Mississippi, famous for it’s fertile soil, abundance of cotton farms and … Blues music:
“I touched down in the land of the Delta Blues, in the middle of the Pouring rain”
Back in the 1920’s the folks on the cotton farms would sing to skip their days along. Heavily influenced by Church Gospel music, their melodies told of the hardships they faced in daily life. It’s this that defined the music of the era, and what I love most about it. Songs arose from a necessity. An irrepressible urge to sing – to ease pain and toil. Place this alongside some of today’s tracks (I refer to Bruno Mars singing about how he’s going to pleasure his lady friend like a ‘Bang Bang, Gorilla’) and I can’t help feeling it’s a form of musical expression long since gone, and something to be cherished.
Downtown Memphis was so very different from how I expected it to be. It’s a quiet place. And I mean, really quiet, ghostly even. As one local explained, Memphis is just a small Blue Collar town, and it always will be:
“Yeah I got a first class ticket, but I’m as Blue as a boy can be”
That surprised me. I’d mentally prepared for a traffic-heavy hectic ride in, and instead I found it rather civilised. There is one place where you’re guaranteed to find some hustle to add to your bustle however, and that’s Beale Street:
“Then I was walking in Memphis, walking with my feet ten feet off the Beale”
In years gone by, Beale street was a normal high street by day, and a muscial mecca by night. You went to see your doctor there, do your shopping, meet your neighbour for a gossip and get a haircut. At night you’d go for the music. And for the food. And the rum. But mainly, for the music. A visit to Beale in the dark hours is a sensory feast. Take a walk there at 9pm and your stomach will rumble with the beat of the baseline. You’ll catch the reflection of the BB King club neon sign in the lens of your eye, just as your ears begin to tingle, and the soulful sounds of the South escape through every cracked window pane to wrap themselves around you like a blanket of Blues. Be sure to take a deep breath and just stand – it’s pure dynamite.
During my time on Beale, I parked my heiney at the infamous Rum Boogie club. Surrounded by 1,000 signed guitars of the legends who’d played here (e.g Billy Gibbons, Bon Jovi, Sting), I drank wine from a plastic cup, ate BBQ and listened to Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks covers being played with gusto. I then headed down the road to a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute show. Complete with slicked back hair and a glamourous assistant with her boobies hanging out, fake Jerry Lee did things to those ivories I’m sure were illegal. Then he played ‘Great balls of fire’ and set the piano ablaze, naturally.
Just out of downtown is Sun studios. Boasting the original flooring, light fixtures, sound proofed walls and even the original microphones, this is where visionary Sam Phillips began recoding Blues music for the first time in 1950. It was here that greats like Jerry Lee lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins began their careers. And where an 18 year old kid called Elvis walked in off the street and recorded a demo track, then a year later (finally) impressed Sam with a countrified version of ‘That’s alright’. What Elvis did that day, is exactly what makes Memphis so special. It’s here that the predominantly Black Blues music of the Delta collided with the predominantly White Country music of Nashville. The result? Rock and Roll baby. And the kids went nuts for it.
I was willing to hate Graceland. I was fully prepared to tell you that it’s a tourist trap – frequented by loud fanatics in stetsons and white rhinestone jeans, on a creepy mission to peer at a dead guy’s home. I was wrong. Of course there were a few rhinestone renegades, and it is up there with the more ‘touristy’ experiences I’ve had (standing in line for a hour to get on a bus which takes you across the road is ridiculous for a start), but it was all actually all rather humbling.
“I saw the Ghost of Elvis, on Union Avenue, followed him up to the Gates of Graceland, and watched him walk right thorough”
What I learnt in my time at Graceland was that Elvis was an incredibly kind soul. A humanitarian who gave huge amounts to charity, loved his family dearly and did as much as he could to make sure they were happy, nearby and comfortable. He was just a regular lad from Tupelo, Mississippi, with a deep love of music and an amazing God given gift to entertain. Sure he was a little kookie by the end. But that magnitude of hero worship would take its toll on anyone. I left feeling sad at the loss of such a talent from the world, but happy that I understood him and his music a little better.
REVEREND AL GREEN
Oh my word – is the only possible way I can start a description of attending a service at The Tabernacle Gospel church in South Memphis. I arrived a little early and so snuk in the back door and onto a pew to catch the end of Sunday school. I felt a tad awkward, like I’d just invited myself to dinner at someones house and I was now sat at the table with a spoon in my hand, heading for the mashed potatoes.
Gradually more people began to arrive. Characterised by their non smart attire and sheepish facial expression, it was clear many weren’t part of the usual congregation. Band members filtered from the wings behind the alter, as one man sat at the piano and began to sing. A lady to my left then joined in, slowly rising from her pew and and making her way forwards to harmonise with piano man. The Church choir then began to file in through the same doors, adding layer upon layer to an already divine chorus. By the time the service began at 11.30, the church was filled to the rafters – not only with people, half local, half tourist, but with the sumptuous sound of Gospel.
There was a short address and some local notices, before the choir and the band started up again. As they did, to the right, there he was. Motown legend Al ‘heard it through the grapevine’ Green glided out of the archway, with the biggest grin on his face. Wearing a cream and navy robe and patent black converse sneakers (what a dude), he moved purposefully among the choir and ministers, shaking their hands and smiling:
“And Reverend Green, be glad to see you, if you haven’t got a prayer. But Boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis”
Rev Green’s service was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve ever had. He’d speak a little, preach a little, converse a little, then break into song – swiftly accompanied by the band and choir who seemed to know what to do without so much as a nod. The two hour programme was like a Gospel version of Les Mis. It left me feeling that I simply must sing about anything and everything for the rest of the day. It really didn’t matter a jot if you were religious, it wasn’t about religion. It was about sheer joy. A celebration of life. Gratitude expressed via the medium of Gospel and positivity via the medium of prayer. I’m sure if they prescribed a morning at the Tabernacle over therapy or drugs, the world would benefit immeasurably.
I left my time in Memphis physically rested and more in love with music than I’d ever been. And it was a good job at that, for I’d need a fresh body and decent musical distractions to get me through the next week across the Ozark mountains. I’m on the edge of them now, having battled through some pretty interesting weather to make it here, and with possibly more to come – but that’s for next week’s blog.