- 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
On a typical sultry Saturday night last October, I wandered along a crowded Beale Street and stopped in at the Blues City Café, a funky, down-at-the-heels nightspot, for some pork ribs, a Memphis specialty. Just across the street, at B. B. King’s, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the great master of Texas swing blues, was strumming his guitar, and from my booth, with its ripped vinyl and slightly beery aroma, I could see him clearly through the neon night. Crowds swept on down the street, collecting in wavering eddies outside the various clubs and cafés, listening to the music that throbbed from inside, and the smell of barbecue, fried fish, and red beans and rice drifted lazily along in the smoky lamplight. Just down the street at A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, which has been on Beale since 1876, you could find anything from voodoo powders and oils to celluloid collars and suspenders. I picked up a John the Conqueror root, just for good luck and, as Muddy Waters says, to keep “my mojo workin*#8217;.” In W. C. Handy Park, across the street from Willie Mitchell’s Rhythm and Blues Club and the New Daisy, which books jazz, blues, R & B, and rockabilly acts, not to mention live boxing on the first Tuesday of the month, a local blues band was belting out one number after another. There was no stage, no bandstand. Audience and musicians mingled, and people, black and white, young and old, tourists and locals, danced, hooted, whistled, clapped their hands, and sang along. The scene might have been from Beale Street’s fabled midnight rambles of eighty years ago.
Memphis, which for so long shunned its musical heritage, is now working hard to embrace it. Museums such as the Memphis Music Hall of Fame on South Second Street and the Center for Southern Folklore on Beale have sprung up to herald the city’s musical past, and such annual musical events as the Beale Street Music Festival in May draw thousands of music fans to the city. Memphis also remains the gateway to the blues-rich Delta, and many who come to attend the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, in October or visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale or even just to gamble in the glittering casinos of nearby Tunica County, Mississippi, begin their tour on Beale Street or at 706 Union Avenue.
Memphis today is once again a prosperous, thriving city. As ever, cotton and timber continue to be major pillars of the local economy—Dunavant Enterprises is the world’s largest cotton exporter, and the National Hardwood Lumber Association has its headquarters here—but cotton and lumber are no longer the undisputed kings in Memphis. Since the late 1970s, when the local entrepreneur Fred Smith founded his company, Memphis has been the home of Federal Express, one of the largest package-delivery outfits in the world, and the city prides itself on being “America’s Distribution Center.” Gleaming glass canyons, home to the banks and brokerages and law firms that form the backdrop to John Grisham’s sinister Memphis novels, dominate the central business district, punctuated by a gigantic stainless steel pyramid that seems to rise from the river itself.
Fashionable, affluent neighborhoods stretch eastward along Poplar, toward the prosperous suburbs of Germantown and Collierville; midtown, especially the area around Overton Park, with its stately old houses, tree-lined streets, parks, and museums, has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Overton Square is home to some of the city’s most popular boutiques, upscale restaurants, and elegant nightclubs and the impressive Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which, when I visited in May, was showing an extensive exhibition of French painting from the ancien régime . Only a short distance away, on Central Avenue, is the ornate roseate-tinted estate of Clarence Saunders, who opened the country’s first self-service food-market chain here, the Piggly Wiggly, in 1916. The estate, called the Pink Palace by locals, has been converted into a diverse and imposing museum, housing a replica of the first Piggly Wiggly, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and numerous exhibits on Memphis social and cultural life. Memphis, in short, is far more than blues, barbecue, and Elvis.