Overheard on a flight to Memphis, a man said to his wife “We’re surely not going to go to Graceland, are we?” at which she indignantly replied, “Are you kidding? I’m not going to Memphis without going to Graceland!”
No, traveler – don’t go to Memphis without going to Graceland. See it all.
Memphis is history and its history is music and the river – and that means the blues and race, tackiness and elegance, beauty and hard times. It means what happens when musical genius triumphs over the toughest of circumstances and it means what happens when you take a poor 22-year-old boy from a shotgun house in Tupelo, Mississippi and make a god out of him.
Memphis is America.
Before Europeans came to the area, Chickasaw Indians had settled on the high bluff above the river, which came to be known as the Mississippi. The area actually divides the upper and lower Mississippi and looks south to the delta, the bayous and what we think of as the Deep South. Two rivers come together here, the mighty Mississippi and the Wolf River. For these reasons, the area was an important and strategic location from before recorded history. In the middle of the 16th century De Soto came and 150 years later the French built a fort there, Fort Prudhomme. Later the English came and in the 1800s Memphis was incorporated as a city and named after the former capital of Egypt. Today the Memphis metropolitan area has a population of nearly a million and a half, making it only slightly smaller than the metropolitan area of Nashville, though within the actual city limits Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee.
Because of its strategic location Memphis was the scene of a fierce battle in the Civil War and eventually was captured by Union forces. Devastating yellow fever epidemics followed and for a while it looked as if the city would not recover. But in spite of this, Memphis called to hundreds of freed slaves who came to the city on the bluff to work and brought with them their music. Memphis in those days had the reputation of being a wide-open, freewheeling place and as such it called to people who were excited about freedom and happy to be out from under repression. They played their music for themselves but soon discovered that others were coming to the area just to hear their music and join the fun. Memphis became famous.
It may have been partly because of this history of racial freedom and mixing that Memphis eventually became pivotal in the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis to support the strike of sanitation workers and was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The motel where he was killed has recently been made a national historic site.
The Graceland site is in some ways exactly what one would expect and also in some ways surprising. The mansion (and that word is really not an exaggeration) stands by itself and has been protected from any overt commercial enterprise. The ticket sales, the gift shop, the hype, are on the other side of a four-lane road and a small van takes visitors back and forth. It has been left, they say, exactly as it was when Elvis lived there – at least as it was the last time he had it redecorated. It is lavish and to some probably tacky. Except that the kitchen, which, we are told, was the heart of the house and where the constant stream of guests and hangers-on congregated is amazingly small and plain. We are told that Elvis liked to eat, but the fact that fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches are said to be his favorite food may account for the fact that the kitchen does not appear to have been designed for culinary masterpieces.
But the hospitality, generosity, love of family and sentimentality that are so much a part of the Elvis Presley legend are evident everywhere in this iconic spot.
Another place where evidence of wealth abounds and is lavishly on display is in the sumptuous lobby of the Peabody Hotel on Union Avenue. Even if it weren’t for the Parade of the Ducks there is enough to see at the Peabody — elegant shops, jewelry, art works-to make the short trip downtown worthwhile. Yes, we said “Parade of the Ducks” and if you don’t know about it we won’t tell you enough to spoil it for you. Just this: ducks live in the penthouse of the hotel at night and spend their days in the lobby fountain, parading through the lobby from elevator to fountain twice a day with as much ceremony as attends the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Another thing NOT to be missed in Memphis!
And then there’s Beale Street where the music started and where it still flourishes.
Here is the nightlife – some say the life of Memphis. Nightclub after nightclub, 30 of them in three blocks, each of them playing music you just can’t hear anywhere else. Blues, of course, the music that was born here – but also jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, gospel, you name it. Pick your music and your club but if you go to BB Kings have the ribs and wherever you go expect to stay late – the musicians don’t really begin to warm up till after 10.
Plan to stay a few days and it is good idea at some point to take a tour. Otherwise, you might not know where to find the Sun Studio, the tiny store front where Elvis made that recording of “That’s All Right, Momma” that was the beginning of a wild journey for one southern boy and the beginning of a cultural shift for the entire country.
This is just a sample of what awaits you in Memphis – we haven’t even mentioned the famous St. Jude’s Hospital complex which must be seen to be believed, the Rock ‘N Soul Museum, Mississippi River Museum, Civil Rights Museum, art, opera…too much to list. You will have to come and see for yourself – and then, “Y’all come back, heah?”