Memphis and the Beale Street Blues
By Stanley Booth

From Gadfly May 1998


When I came to Memphis at the end of the 50s, Beale Street was in decline. There wasn't much there except a few pawn shops, Lansky's Men's Wear, Robert Henry's pool room, Art Hutkin's Hardware, Reuben Cherry's Home of the Blues record store and Schwab's. Ten years later, courtesy of the person who shot Martin Luther King, Jr., it was history. They dug up the street, tore the buildings down, and that killed Robert, Art and Reuben. Now it's crowded with tourists looking to spend money. This is called, in Memphis, progress.

The first time—certainly one of the first few times—I came to Beale Street, I got thrown out of a Ray Charles concert at a converted roller skating rink called the Hippodrome. My offense was sitting at a table with some black friends I'd met at Memphis State University, where we were all students. The school had integrated that year, but Beale Street hadn't. A lot has happened since then, to put it mildly. Looking out the bay window where you usually see Peabody Avenue and the Japanese maple by the driveway and instead seeing an army tank can heighten your awareness of how thin the fabric of society really is. But we'll get to that.

Accidents of geography—high ground, easily available water—create great cities. Also places like Memphis.

The best book about Memphis, 59 years after its publication, is Gerald M. Capers' Biography of a River Town. Capers' account stops in 1900, but the description still fits:

Upon the flatboat town had been superimposed a stratum of society which suffered little from a superficial comparison with the upper class elsewhere in the South, but beneath that stratum surged the old life in all its pristine viciousness. In the numerous dives, gambling dens, and bawdy houses the scum of the river still congregated, and life there was cheap and murder commonplace.

For most of the years of its existence, Memphis has lacked a clear identity in the minds of outsiders. It was only with the deaths of Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley that the world came to have any sort of focus on what Memphis even partly signifies. Death is a good place to start. Death, and theft, and rape, and pain, and sorrow. The fancy music you hear in the background is an unusually complex dirge.

While living in Memphis, I embarked on a book tour that took me through the British Isles during a period of greater than ordinary tension in Northern Ireland. When I returned, people asked, "How was Belfast?" Having read the morning accounts of routine local homicides in the Commercial Appeal, one concerning the use of a third of a quarter in a juke box, another following the conflict between a wife's desire for pork chops and her husband's hunger for chicken, I replied, truthfully, "Compared to Memphis, it was very quiet."

The first steamboats appeared on the Mississippi in 1811, the year a series of earthquakes began that made the river flow north, swallowing the town of New Madrid, Missouri and forming Reelfoot Lake. Great events stalked the and. In 1819, Capers says, "Andrew Jackson and James Winchester, generals of the American army in the War of 1812, and John Overton, retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, climaxed a long career of speculation in land by founding the town of Memphis on the lower Chickasaw bluff where they owned five thousand acres." Whatever destiny may have in store for it, Memphis has always been essentially a real estate deal. The access to the river, the country's main artery, dictated the eventual existence of a city there, but nobody said the story would be a pretty one.

In light of what was to come, it's interesting that the first and second mayors of Memphis had black wives—or black women. That is, Mayor Number Two, Isaac Rawlings, a rough tavern keeper, lived with a black woman in open concubinage. Wisely, it turned out, for Mayor Number One, Marcus Winchester, the gentlemanly son of James, was ruined locally by his marriage to a cultured Creole belle from New Orleans. Rawlings' common‑law arrangement was tolerated by his fellow citizens, who refused to accept the Winchesters' more idealistic status.

For its first 20 years, Memphis was rivaled by another river town, Randolph, on the second Chickasaw bluff at the mouth of the Hatchie River. The more northerly Randolph was considered healthier after dengue fever in 1827 and yellow fever in 1828 struck Memphis. In fact, had Jackson permitted construction of a proposed Hatchie‑Tennessee canal, Randolph might be known as the Home of the Blues. But Memphis, in spite of plagues and famines, would persist, and Randolph would be burned by order of General Sherman.

The population of Memphis grew from 600‑odd in 1830 to over 20,000 in 1860. During the Civil War (known in these parts as the War of the Northern Aggression) local sentiment was strongly pro‑Southern, but on June 6, 1862, when the Battle of Memphis occurred, the city's troops were stationed at other places, and it fell in 20 minutes. Memphis suffered little from the war—how can you demoralize a place whose morals are so hard to locate?

The single most significant event in the history of Memphis must be the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. There had been relatively minor outbreaks of the disease before, but 1878 did the town in. It lost its city charter and was a taxing district until 1893. The fever was far deadlier to white than to black victims, most of whom recovered. By the end of the 1878 epidemic, the city's population had been reduced from over 50,000 to under 15,000, and blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of over six to one.

This meant that an existing city in a favorable geographical situation lost its traditions, making a clean slate on which creative individuals could write the future. Thomas Edison, oppressed by swarms of cockroaches in his Court Square boarding house, figured out how to send electricity along a wire to kill them. Clarence Saunders developed the Piggly Wiggly, the first supermarket; Fortune's Jungle Garden, a near‑downtown restaurant too small to hold the crowds after the opera, began serving people in their carriages, becoming a drive‑in before the term existed. Later Kemmons Wilson would come in from Arkansas and change the face of the planet with the Holiday Inns, the first of which was on Summer Avenue in Memphis. They tore it down a few years back, those sentimental Memphians.

But when people hear the name Memphis, the first thing they think of is music. This started with the blues, a musical form domesticated by W.C. Handy, a trained musician from Florence, Alabama, who lived in Memphis from 1905 to 1918. Handy's first blues was written for the campaign of Edward Hull Crump, a reform candidate for mayor in 1909. Hired by Crump's supporters to play for political rallies, Handy dashed off an ironic tune—"Mr. Crump don't 'low it, ain't goin' have it here"—with the insouciant response, "we don't care what Mr. Crump don't 'low, we gonna bar'l‑house anyhow."

Over time, Boss Crump, who grew in piety through the years and died in 1954, was responsible for the closing of many colorful places on Beale. It wouldn't have been destroyed, though, had Martin Luther King not been assassinated near there. After the turmoil surrounding that event—tanks and battle‑ready troops in residential streets—the city, in a paroxysm of shame, leveled the entire neighborhood where King's followers had marched. Schwab's department store at 163 Beale alone survived, simply because the Schwab family owned the land and couldn't be put off. The store is still there, and is easily the most authentic spot on Beale. They sell everything from pork and beans to overalls. If you can't find it at Schwab's, the saying goes, you're better off without it.

Beale Street reaches from the Mississippi River eastward for about a mile, passing near its terminus a few yards from Sam Phillips' Sun Records, 706 Union Avenue at Marshall, where Howling Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jackie Brenston, Charlie Rich, Roscoe Gordon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and other eccentrics recorded. The street—no one knows who Beale was—acquired its association with negritude after General Grant moved into a Beale mansion during the Civil War, when blacks in the area, many of them recently freed slaves, gathered around Union headquarters for protection. They had good reason to fear the local whites, particularly the Irish police, who perpetrated "the Memphis Massacre," an attack on their community in May of 1866 that, while costing the lives of two whites, killed 44 blacks and burned down 91 black houses, four black churches and 12 black schools. Memphis has a long and colorful tradition of racially motivated disorder.

Such is the fecundity, however, of that alluvial soil—the Mississippi Delta, in the famous dictum of David Cohn, starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel—that neither police nor Crump nor anyone else could stop the creativity in Memphis. Sam Phillips had the first recording studio, but others soon followed—Cordell Jackson and Moon, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton's Stax, Donald Crews and Chips Moman's American, Roland Janes's Sonic, Doc Russell and Quinton Claunch's Goldwax, John Fry's Ardent and many since then. What makes them all different from most of those in New York, Chicago, Nashville and Los Angeles is that the ones in Memphis are independent, oh boy.

The story of all this music is something you should think about endowing me to write. But I will tell you this. There's a bookstore in Memphis called Burke's. I didn't know Mr. Burke the founder—he was dead—but I knew his son, when the store was still in its original location on Front Street. Bill never, so far as I was able to determine, read a book in his life, and cared mostly for baseball. It was when the store had moved onto Poplar that I was in there one day and met Professor Capers. I have turned into him now, a grey‑haired old fart in khakis. At some point he told the story of being a Scoutmaster and having among his charges a boy named Shelby Foote. They had scout camp in Crittenden, Arkansas, and sang around the campfire. "I knew Shelby was a genius," Capers said, "when I heard him create a new verse for 'Casey Jones': 'Casey Jones was a dude you know, he drove his train through the whorehouse door.'"

Years afterwards, I told this story to Foote's son Huger. Some months later, he said, "I told my father what you said about 'Casey Jones.'"

"What did he say?" I asked.

Huger quoted: "'He came through the window with his dick in his hand, saying, 'Look out, ladies, I'm a railroad man.'"

That's the Memphis Sound.

The Memphis Sound—it's a real thing, not just propaganda. Evidence of its reality is the long, long time it took the politicians to claim it. Blues musicians like Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Gus Cannon; swing and jazz musicians like Jimmy Lunceford, Buster Bailey and Phineas Newborn have all, like the Sun artists I've mentioned, been ignored in Memphis. The degree of indifference to art of any sort in Memphis would be hard to exaggerate. Just as, to his fellow Memphians, Elvis was a reclusive weirdo, so Al Green is that black fellow with his own church. As music becomes more of a business, this indifference is changing to greed. A Hard Rock franchise opened on Beale Street last November, the month Green's Lounge, Memphis' best blues club, burned down.

If you go to Memphis, be careful. The murder rate is not as high as it was around the turn of the century, when Memphis was the murder capital of the country, but it's still high, and so is the incidence of rape. Recent years have seen some appalling—and appallingly pointless—murders.

I'm sparing you a lot of painful details. A few years back, Huger Foote, driving one night in his father's tan Mercedes, stopped for a red light at the corner of Madison and Evergreen in midtown Memphis. Something about Huger inspired a young black man, stopped alongside and carrying a pistol, to shoot him. He drove himself to the Methodist Hospital and went to the emergency room. In Memphis, it helps to be able to take it.

Bad things—of a racial character—have happened in Memphis, over and over again. Resentments exist in Memphis as in Belfast, as in Jerusalem.  It doesn't make life impossible in these places, but it doesn't make it easier. Still, you can come to Memphis, stay at the Peabody, go to Al Green's church or even, if you insist, to Graceland, eat barbecue at the Cozy Corner, hear jazz players like Fred Ford and Calvin Newborn on Beale Street, and count your blessings. Just keep in mind where you are. Blood has flowed in these streets, and the aroma of magnolias is tinged with the bitter smoke of violence.