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
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."
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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.'"
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.'"
did he say?" I asked.
quoted: "'He came through the window with his
dick in his hand, saying, 'Look out, ladies, I'm
a railroad man.'"
the Memphis Sound.
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.
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
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.
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.