- 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
Throughout these decades of recovery and boom times, Memphis continued to draw a rising tide of African-American migrants. Laborers, would-be entrepreneurs, teachers, and musicians flooded into the relatively free atmosphere of the city’s south side, the hub of which was Beale Street. Although the city remained strictly segregated, the Beale Street area became a vibrant, largely self-contained black community, complete with doctors, lawyers, druggists, insurance brokers, schools, churches, retail stores, and theaters, unfettered by the oppressive Jim Crow laws or intrusive white police. Two black newspapers circulated in the area, and a black-owned bank had opened by 1910. Beale Street was home to the South’s first African-American millionaire, Robert Church, a former slave who not only financed a park and an auditorium for the city’s black residents but also contributed mightily with his financial support to the reinstatement of the city’s charter in 1893. Meanwhile the black Primrose Club and Toxoway Tennis Club catered to a sophisticated social set. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Beale Street had become “the Negro Main Street of America.”
Memphis had given birth to the blues, and black musicians streamed up Highway 61 out of the Delta to make it on Beale.
During this period Memphis acquired a well-deserved reputation as a raucous city of sin, the “Sodom of the New South.” Prosperous and bustling, it was also a tough river town. In 1905 the city emerged as the murder capital of the country, a dubious distinction it would not relinquish for three decades.
In the 1920s a newspaperman named Gilmore Millen described Beale as a “street of business and love and murder and theft—an aisle where … merchants and pawnbrokers, country Negroes from plantations, créole 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.” But Millen left the most important ingredient out of this colorful stew, the thing that made Beale Street, and for that matter Memphis itself, exhilarating: its music. Music roiled like river rapids along the four-block stretch that seemed to be a world all to itself. It was in this exotic, wide-open environment that W. C. Handy, a thirty-two-year-old black bandleader from Florence, Alabama, would “discover” a new musical form, the blues. An accomplished, formally trained musician who had performed in minstrel shows and toured with his orchestra across the South, Handy arrived in Memphis in 1905 and set up his musical headquarters in Pee Wee’s Saloon on Beale Street, a famous hangout for local musicians. He quickly established a considerable local reputation, and in 1909 E. H. Crump, a young candidate for mayor who would come to dominate Memphis and Tennessee politics for almost half a century, commissioned Handy to write a campaign song for him. Crump was courting the black vote and wanted a tune that would attract African-Americans without alienating white voters. For years Handy had listened to the rhythms of the Delta singers and guitar pickers, the harmonica players and scrub-board artists who congregated in the parks and played for pennies all along Beale Street, and for Crump’s campaign song he hit on the idea of suffusing these rich Delta rhythms with full European instrumentation. The result was “Mister Crump,” which, like the candidate, became a local hit. The song, with altered lyrics, soon reappeared as “Memphis Blues,” and in subsequent years Handy used the same formula to compose a series of hits, notably “Beale Street Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” that put both the genre and the city on the musical map.
Everyone seemed to agree that, thanks to W. C. Handy, Memphis had given “birth to the blues,” and the city quickly became a mecca for black musicians who streamed up Highway 61 out of the Delta to make it in the clubs and juke joints that flourished on Beale Street. Memphis Minnie McCoy and Peter Chatman, better known as Memphis Slim, two of the most influential blues figures of the thirties and forties, launched their careers on Beale Street, as did Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, who later set the tone for the Chicago school of blues. Music seemed to be everywhere, from the churches, with their rollicking gospel choirs, to the street corners and park benches, filled with blues musicians just off the bus, and the rowdy saloons and smoke-filled dives that dotted Beale Street.