The Backpacker Blues

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Tennessee Inhabitant/New Friend: So Charlie, where y’all headed after Nashville?
Me: Ah I’m headed over to Memphis!
TI/NF: *looks worried* Oh…
Me: …what?
TI/NF: Oh nothing. Y’all just be careful ok? Just don’t go walking round at night, don’t carry any valuables and maybe write your last will and testament before you arrive.
Me: *horrified* It’s that bad!?
TI/NF: Oh no not that bad. But tell your momma you love her first.

Which is basically the gist of how any conversation about Memphis went. Understandably I was a little nervous about arriving. Especially when I found out my couchsurfing host lived 11 miles from the Greyhound Station. Memphis is oft featured on “Top 10 US Cities for Crime” Lists and everyone I spoke to told me to be careful. Their cynical attitudes almost convinced me to skip the city and head straight for New Orleans. Luckily I didn’t, and besides encountering some scary and insane people on the local buses, I made it out of the city unscathed. And the time I spent there was excellent =D

This is due to me spending all my time in the very heart of the city, right by the riverfront. Beale Street in downtown Memphis serves as the music hub of the region, with live blues playing almost non stop. It. Was. Amazing. I’m a saxophone player, and over the years I’ve played music from many genres, but blues is definitely one of the best. Memphis is called “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll and the Home of the Blues”. Evidently there was a lot going on here that meritted closer scrutiny of this gritty southern city.

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I couchsurfed again here, with 22 year old art/theatre design student Jill, who I got along with great and who made my time here 20 times more enjoyable. The first night we went into town to find her other guest Sebastian, a German, and after eating a pizza burger (a beautiful combination) we went in search of some live music. At the Blues Hall we listened to a couple of bands and oh how I loved them. I can’t even begin. It was some of the greatest live music I’ve heard, it’s such an awesome style. And the performers were so authentically Southern… it was a dream come true.

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The next day I spent with Sebastian. I was keen to visit the Civil Rights Museum; it was set up in the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And Sebastian was dying to take a ride on a paddle boat on the Mississippi, so these are the two things we did. The museum blew me away. We unfortunately had to rush through due to the boat ride. But I was really moved by the exhibits that outlined the struggle black people have had in the USA for equality. And it’s still happening today! The most shocking things for me was to learn that the biggest breakthroughs in African American history never happened because of the US leaders being compassionate. Slavery was only abolished so that the South would lose their industry and the workforce that provided them with supplies for the Civil War. Action was only taken against racism and lynchings in the South by Kennedy because the USSR was producing propaganda denouncing the USA for the evils against its own people. The museum, as well as talking with Jill, really opened my eyes to the very real problem modern America has with racism. The image I had of this country is being challenged more and more the longer I spend here. This country really isn’t as great as everyone here thinks it is…

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Heard some more live music that night, before Sebastian got on his bus to New Orleans, and Jill and I went back to drink beer and watch How I Met Your Mother in her apartment. The next day was already my last day in the city (sure was a short stop) so I decided to head to the Museum of Soul and Rock & Roll. And although you probably think I say this about every single museum I go to, it was brilliant.

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Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Booker T. & the MGs, Al Green, Carla Thomas… all of these music legends were signed to record companies in Memphis. The history of music in the area is the only history you need to know. The museum details the rise of country music, the integration of black and white musicians, the birth of Rock & Roll and Soul by white people singing black music… it’s an incredible story and walking round the Museum with an audio guide listening to it as well as boogie-ing to the hits from the time was quite an experience. It was probably one of my favourite museums to date.

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So that’s why I’m glad I braved a visit to Memphis. It has its problems with crime, racism, irregular bus schedules and being super ugly, but all of that aside, it’s the ultimate destination for music fans. Although Rock & Roll has kinda died a death and the city has seen better days, it’s identity is preserved through amazing museums and a still-jumping blues scene on Beale Street, a place I could have spent weeks on. But I’m already on my way to the next music Mecca; New Orleans. Maybe there will be a band or two down there to listen to…

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Me and my host Jill just before I left

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