- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Bales of cotton no longer accumulate along the riverbank, but a small fleet of stern-wheelers still serves the Memphis waterfront.
When the phone rang and I heard the familiar voice of an old family friend inviting me to visit him in his hometown of Memphis, I was intrigued. Born and raised in Tennessee, I have lived for more than twenty years in Philadelphia, and while my work as a historian has taken me many times to Europe and around much of the United States, I never had occasion to visit Memphis. To me, growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain in distant East Tennessee, Memphis, three hundred miles away on the mighty Mississippi, was as remote, as romantic, as exotic as Casablanca. It was a city of music and murder, of barbecue and the blues. And then, of course, there was Elvis. I had not intended to take a trip to Memphis before that phone call, but it was a summons I could not refuse. I spent three days in Memphis during that visit. That was five years ago, and ever since I keep finding new reasons to return.
I am not alone. From around the world thousands answer a summons to Memphis each year, making a pilgrimage to the shrines of a global cultural revolution that began in this sleepy Southern city nearly fifty years ago. It was in this provincial backwater on the Mississippi that the diverse currents of black blues up from the Delta, country from the hills of Tennessee and Arkansas, and gospel, both black and white, converged to create a uniquely American musical expression, rock ’n’ roll.
Why Memphis? How could this modest Tennessee city, a city so traditional that Peter Taylor could write, “We were not after all a genuine Memphis family. We had lived in Memphis only thirty years,” have been the site of such a momentous musical upheaval? Memphis has always been something of a mystery, a Southern sphinx, complete now with its own stainless steel pyramid, on “the American Nile.” Situated in the southwest corner of Tennessee, Memphis is to many, even in the Volunteer State, an enigma.
Certainly Memphis has hardly turned east, toward Nashville, Chattanooga, or Knoxville, for its identity. With no city or town of any size within two hundred miles in any direction, Memphis had emerged by the early twentieth century as the commercial and cultural capital of a vast agrarian region spanning the flatlands of West Tennessee, Arkansas, and, of course, the Mississippi Delta. Indeed, the Delta is said to begin in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis and end on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. From its earliest days the city would draw not only on the Delta’s vast agrarian richness but on its potent cultural heritage as well, exerting an almost magical pull on the Delta’s ambitious and desperate, both black and white. That attraction has been especially strong for musicians and writers. From W. C. Handy to B. B. King, from William Faulkner in nearby Oxford, Mississippi, to Tennessee Williams, Shelby Foote, Peter Taylor, Walker Percy, Alex Haley, and, most recently, John Grisham, Memphis would represent the Paris of the Deep South, the gateway to the wider world. For while Memphis was certainly steeped in the Deep South, the city looked upriver as well as down, not only to New Orleans but to St. Louis and Chicago and beyond. Indeed, from the time of its founding in the early nineteenth century, Memphis has stood at a cultural and social crossroads, an inland river city where cultures, rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, Northern and Southern, did not so much converge as collide.
The first of those powerful collisions occurred more than four centuries ago, when Hernando de Soto reached the site of present-day Memphis and claimed it for the kingdom of Spain. The Majestic bluff where de Soto stood (or may have stood: arguments abound) on that day in 1541 and scanned the broad river nearly a hundred feet below had served for centuries as a camp for the Chickasaw nation. De Soto and his restless band of explorers quickly moved on, but in the late seventeenth century the French explorer La Salle laid claim to the entire Mississippi Valley for Louis XIV, and in 1739 the French constructed a fort on what had become known as the fourth Chickasaw bluff. Later in the century the Spanish returned, displaced the French, and built their own Fort San Fernando on the site, before the Americans, in turn, drove them across the Mississippi.