If Beale Street Could Talk

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The roots of jazz, perhaps the most American of all our arts, curl back to almost everywhere: to the west coast of Africa, first of all, but then to Europe, to the Caribbean, to the Appalachians, to the work songs of the levees and cotton fields and the rolling Gospel music of a thousand Baptist churches scattered across the South.

It all came together in the cities, and the places where it happened—Storyville in New Orleans, State Street in Chicago, and the rest—have become legends. Of all these raucous urban enclaves, none was riper with life and music than a gaudy thoroughfare in Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Avenue was its official name, but it was Beale Street to those who called it home. They were a varied bunch, those people. Listen to newspaperman Gilmore Millen, as he described the Beale Street scene of the 1920’s: “It is a street of business and love and murder and theft—an aisle where … merchants and pawnbrokers, country Negroes from plantations, creole prostitutes and painted fag men, sleepy gamblers and slick young chauffeurs, crooks and bootleggers and dope peddlers and rich property owners and powdered women … and labor agents and blind musicians and confidence men and hard-working Negroes from sawmills and cotton warehouses and factories and stores meet and stand on corners and slip upstairs to gambling joints and rooming hotels and barber shops and bawdy houses.”

Colorful, to say the least, but Millen left something out: the music. For more than forty years it spilled out in the warm Mississippi nights all along the street, from Pee Wee’s Saloon, the Gray Mule, the Hole in the Wall, the Daisy Theatre, Hammitt Ashford’s Place, the Panama Club, the Palace Theatre, out of dives and brothels and cafés, from the tailgates of advertising wagons whose brassy bands staged a musical showdown every time they chanced to meet at an intersection, from sidewalk cornetists whose sweet notes rang in the liquid air.

And it was here that a young black man from Alabama named W. C. Handy came to blow a horn in his own band, listen to the patois of the street, borrow from the folk music of his youth and put together his great blues songs; among them “Memphis Blues” (1909), “St. Louis Blues” (1914), “The Hesitating Blues” (1915), “The John Henry Blues” (1922)—and “Beale Street Blues” (1916), in which he articulated the bawdier side of street life: “If Beale Street could talk / If Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk. / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street Blues.”

After taking what Beale Street could give him, Handy moved on to Chicago and New York. He died in 1958, and by then the street which had helped him popularize the blues had fallen upon dismal times. It was still tawdry; it was still predominantly black; but it no longer echoed with the excitement of the days when its music enriched the American mainstream. Then came urban renewal, or an approximation thereof. In 1966 the Memphis Housing Authority announced plans to tear much of the neighborhood down for a tourist extravaganza that would transform “drab Beale Street into a glittering jewel, complete with a revolving tower-restaurant at the Mississippi River, a riverfront freeway, highrise apartments, a plaza along Beale, and a huge covered commercial mall,” as the Memphis Press-Scimitar described it all. The National Park Service complicated these plans somewhat by declaring two of the oldest blocks of the street a National Historic Landmark, which protected some buildings from the wrecker’s ball, but the MHA still planned to raze as much as it felt it could get away with, in spite of vigorous protest from local residents and merchants. “You’re forgetting one thing,” one of them said. “If you tear down all these buildings, you will no longer have Beale Street….” Unconvinced, the MHA issued eviction notices, made feasibility studies, began a clearance program, and invited private bids for redevelopment.

Plans for the area became more and more grandiose (one proposal called for as much as $200,000,000 in investment capital), but even as they did, the project began a slow decline, perhaps done in by its own weight. Bickering over exactly what was going to be built where ensued among developers, government agencies, and local interest groups; the mills of bureaucracy ground exceeding fine; and, above all, the money squeeze of the mid-1970’s caused investment capital to look upon the whole business coldly. By the summer of 1977 the great plan of 1966 lay as wrecked and moribund as much of Beale Street itself.