- 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
Yet for all its prosperity Memphis is not Atlanta or Charlotte or Houston, glittering symbols of the Sunbelt and New South. There lingers about this old river city an unsettling and irresistible air of mystery, of haunted memory, of ghosts lurking always just beyond view. You sense it as you ride the newly created trolley line through a tableau of contrasts along Main Street, traveling from the tiny park at Auction Square where slaves were bought and sold, through the glass and steel of the modern business district, to the seedy store-fronts and deserted flophouses of the South Main historic district. You feel it in the haunted corridors of the Lorraine Motel, converted now into the National Civil Rights Museum, in the faded grandeur of the Victorian Village, in the tiny studio at Sun Records, in the rooms of Graceland, and on East McLemore, where a forlorn state historical marker rises like a tombstone from the litter-filled vacant lot that was the site of Soulsville, USA. But above all else, there is the sound, the unmistakable undying sound of Memphis music in all its myriad forms and phases, summoning us decade after decade to this city on the Mississippi. For anyone who visits the nightspots of Beale Street, who travels to Faulkner country just to the south, eats ribs at the Rendezvous, or buys voodoo powders at Schwab’s, the sultry mysterious Memphis that gave birth to the blues, to rock ’n’ roll, and to soul will cast its luxuriant, disturbing spell.