October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
By the middle of the present century, Mr. Crump—West Tennessee’s presiding political genius from 1909 to his death in 1954—could boast that Memphis had more churches than it had service stations. This was true, and it followed a tradition dating back to long before Billy Sunday and Gipsy Smith held court in the region. One such preacher, early on, was Elijah Coffey, a sometime shoemaker and Free-Will Baptist. He’d left a wife and a shaky reputation up in Illinois, but Memphis cared nothing for that. His pulpit style was more important, and an eyewitness has left us a description of it: “In the delivery of his sermons he held his left hand to his ear and slashed around with his right in a frightful manner, taxing his lungs to their fullest capacity.” When a ranter like Coffey came along, there was a bullpen padded with straw for the physical safety of those most violently afflicted with the “shakes.” Out on the rim of the uproar, young people also had their fun, taking the opportunity for courting. “For a mile or more around the campground,” the same witness testified, “the woods seem alive with people. Every tree or bush has its couple, while hundreds of others are seen prowling around in search of some cozy spot.” Hallelujah!
Other excesses developed and expanded down the years. Crime, for instance, especially murder. In 1922 a Prudential Life Insurance Company statistician announced that Memphis —with 67.4 murders per 100,000 population, as compared with far-north, sinful New York City’s 5.8—was “the murder capital of America.” Big Shelby—so called because it is the seat of the county named for Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky and one of the city’s prospective founders—had been badmouthed before and even took pride in some of the accusations made when it was a roisterous bluff-top stopping-off place for flatboatmen bound downriver with a load of steam that would not wait for Natchez. But this was different; this affected business , particularly the insurance business, which Mr. Crump personified. Moreover, the charge was unfair, to a considerable degree. Half-murdered victims from miles around were rushed to Memphis for emergency hospital treatment, and if one didn’t survive, he swelled the grim statistics. In much the same way, field hands and high rollers, up from the Mississippi Delta and down from the Missouri boot-heel, came to town and got into shootouts over dice and cards and women, and those outlanders who died were added to the list.
All the same, this murder-capital tag was just too much, and the answer was fairly clear. Though Mr. Crump had never discouraged good times in all forms, the gamblers and the madams and their houses had to go, along with their hangers-on and easy riders. So go they did, across the Mississippi line and over the Harahan Bridge to Arkansas. Yet in many ways they took the vibrant soul of Memphis with them. Repudiating her earthy heritage, the bluff-top city got clean and quiet and almost holy and began to brag about it on roadside billboards welcoming tourists into town: “America’s Cleanest City” and “America’s Quietest City,” awards it won in the early days of the Depression. By way of lagniappe, movie theaters were required to remain dark on Sundays.
But this too changed with time; there have been many Memphises on the Lower Chickasaw Bluff. Just as she had survived three horrendous bouts with yellow fever—one of which reduced her into becoming merely the “Taxing District of Shelby County”—so too did she survive this uncharacteristic stretch of prudish respectability and emerge as a city on the boom and on the make, in some ways more akin to Chicago or Cleveland, say, than to Charleston or to Atlanta, her archrival; sometimes, in fact, her boosters get carried away and talk rather like out-of-state Texans. Still, operating as they do behind a Deep South facade—“The Place of Good Abode,” as the Chamber of Commerce dubbed her at one time—these same boosters remember that “charm” is one of their homegrown products too, and they shrug and smile as if to say it doesn’t matter. But it does; it matters a great deal. Big Shelby’s charm, like that of a Southern belle broadening her drawl in Manhattan, is nearly always based on something practical. A North-South East-West crossroads, her manner is as much Western as it is Southern, both at once. As a stranger you are welcomed, Western style, but then, if you don’t quite measure up to expectations, the Southern deep freeze sets in.
As for me, though, who’s been living here for better than forty years, my favorite Memphis is the Memphis of my youth, when I used to come up from the Delta to have fun. Here we saw our first skyscraper—sixteen floors!—and took our first ride on a roller coaster, first tasted whiskey mixed with anything but Coca-Cola, and in some benighted cases first encountered hot and cold spigots and ladies with no sleeves in their dresses. Going up there was like visiting another world. The Peabody lobby, where “drummers” sat in overstuffed chairs with Elks teeth on their watch chains and big cigars in their faces, was bigger than any barn down home and as grand as anything in The Arabian Nights . Downstairs in the coffee shop the waitresses called you honey, but Alonzo in the main dining room always knew your name, along with everyone else’s. Up in bed at last, if you liked to sleep with the patter of rain in your dreams, you could leave the shower running all night long. Traffic sounded faint and far, down on the streets below, like the dwindled strain of fox horns three fields off, and next morning you’d be going out to Overton Park to watch the zoo men feed the lions.
My mother told me once about a turn-of-the-century dance down home that had Bud Scott’s band at one end of the floor and W. C. Handy’s at the other. I would certainly like to have been there, even though it would have me crowding a hundred by now. Handy, not Elvis, is for me the providing and presiding spirit of Memphis. “I’d rather be here than any place I know,” he said of his hometown in the 1917 “Beale Street Blues,” and later, when words were added to “The Memphis Blues” of 1911—the first ever put on paper—he offered an explanation of why he loved the place. “It wraps a spell around your heart,” he sang. And so it does. So it does.