Backstage pass to the American soul: Memphis, small city with outsized influence

Photo: Mario G. Flores Beale Street, a hub of activity day and night.

Photo: Mario G. Flores
Beale Street, a hub of activity day and night.

Darin Lietz
Seattle, Wash.

Memphis anchors the southwestern corner of Tennessee and crowns the northernmost point of the Mississippi Delta, in a humid confluence of gentility and squalor, eccentricity and tradition, and all of the passions that simmer under a baleful sun. Fortunately for visitors, those simmering passions have given birth to some of the most viscerally satisfying music and food in the nation. Whether it’s the deft cuisine and pedigreed cocktails of the seersucker set, the iconic BBQ joints and soul food cafes with their hypnotic smells, or the circus of clubs and beer windows on Beale Street, Memphis celebrates all of those little, crucial pleasures that make even the hardest lives worthwhile.

Photo: Mario G. Flores Beale Street.

Photo: Mario G. Flores
Beale Street.

Memphis has held court on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River for nearly two centuries, watching riverboats ply their way through the Big Muddy. Visitors can get a taste of that history by taking a brief sightseeing cruise on one of the old paddlewheelers, while tour guides regale you with tales of the river life, as a young Mark Twain once knew it. From the deck, it’s not hard to imagine passages from Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” or “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” coming vividly alive in front of your eyes.

There is a whole lot of history that comes to life in Memphis, from virtually every stage of the city’s past. But, even in a city with a wealth of monuments, museums, and historic locales, there’s one place that locals seem to regard as their crown jewel: the Peabody Hotel. One step inside, and you’ll be transported back in time to an age of genteel opulence. It is said that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody, but it’s something entirely different that begins on its roof, every day at 11:00 a.m. Five ducks are led from their rooftop Duck Palace on a ceremonial march to the elevator. Emerging in the ornate lobby, the dapper aquafowl stride across a red carpet to an Italian marble fountain. There, in the middle of what locals call “The Living Room of Memphis,” they swim and lounge, surrounded by visitors sipping swanky drinks from the Lobby Bar. When you go, enjoy some repose with the ducks in the lobby, but also head up to the roof, where you can see their Palace and a commanding view of downtown.

Photo: Mario G. Flores The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luthor King, Jr. was shot, currently part of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Photo: Mario G. Flores
The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luthor King, Jr. was shot, currently part of the National Civil Rights Museum.

For a markedly different slice of history, you can take an emotional and inspiring tour through the National Civil Rights Museum, the grounds of which include the original Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The collections and exhibitions document the five-hundred-year journey of the Civil Rights Movement in America with artifacts, films, and interactive features. For more historical perspective, the Cotton Museum, located at the old Memphis Cotton Exchange, gives visitors an understanding of the industry that became synonymous with slavery and the American South, and how it forged this city, including many of the characteristics that define it to this day.

No characteristic defines Memphis like its music. This is where the blues of the cruelly impoverished Mississippi Delta were brought to light, giving birth not only to Delta Blues, but all of the genres that grew from it. You’ll see signs all over town declaring Memphis “Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” That legacy is mapped out at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, located right on iconic Beale Street.

Beale Street is living music history, having been the place where seminal bluesmen from W.C. Handy to B.B. King honed their craft in the old clubs. Today, Beale is a perpetual party, full of venues featuring all kinds of music, food, shops, and walk-up drink windows. Libations can be consumed outside, as long as you stay within the zoned-off blocks of the street that stay hopping till about 3:00 a.m.

Photo: Mario G. Flores Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley cut their first albums.

Photo: Mario G. Flores
Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley cut their first albums.

Beyond Beale, you can go visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and others made their magic. You can also tour the legendary Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley once walked in as unknowns, and cut the records that started their legendary careers. But, ask any Elvis fan, and one place tops their must-see list: Graceland. Even for non-Elvis fans, the King’s former home is a fascinating time capsule. To do it justice would require a separate article; let me just say that I, for one, will never forget the floor-to-ceiling shag carpet stairway.

The other cultural treasure of Memphis is the food. Yes, there’s fine dining, excellent Southern and Soul food, and standouts of various niches, like Dyer’s Burgers, which has been straining the same cooking grease for about a century, or The Kooky Kanuck, a Canadian restaurant with the best poutine I’ve encountered in the United States. But Memphis mostly prides itself on being one of the major American BBQ meccas.

Pork is definitely king in Memphis BBQ, particularly the iconic ribs, done dry or wet, and the ubiquitous chopped pork. But you can find plenty of beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and sausage, if you prefer. They revel in pioneering new ways to play with BBQ, and love throwing that juicy, smoky chopped pork on everything, like nachos, salads, and even spaghetti! Places like Rendezvous, Interstate BBQ, Corky’s, and Central BBQ are nearly as big of a draw for foodies as Graceland is for Elvis fans.

Memphis might not be the first city that springs to mind as a classic American destination; it’s probably not even in the top ten. The poverty that gave birth to its proudest attributes still permeates. But this small city has had an outsized influence on American culture, and when you leave, you’re likely to take away a layered sense of our social history, tunes that won’t leave your head, and a profoundly happy belly, making you feel like you just had a backstage pass to the American soul.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 24, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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