On a muggy Thursday night at 2am in April, I found myself stranded and wandering around a deserted downtown Memphis. Without enough cab fare on hand to return to the hostel, thus far I had only hitchhiked twice during my two month venture, and that night I felt an intense uneasy warning in my gut about taking such a risk. Fortunately, a sweet friend let me crash in her Motel room, but I’ll always remember those lost hours in between where I really had to re-evaluate my street smarts.
This frequently populated touristy area had now transformed into a ghost town, illuminated by hazy neon signs. At 3am, I found myself sitting on a iron bench in Beale street, puffing on a child-sized cuban cigar that leaves a smoky honey aftertaste on your tongue (for those of you who know me, I only smoke once in a blue moon, so this was a rare act to pass the time). I briefly close my eyes, only to open them and notice a man scuffling about in the shadows. He slowly creeps over to sit down on the opposite end of the bench. With grey frayed hair, his glassy eyes stare wildly in my direction.
Remaining calm, I reject this strange man’s lewd proposal as he glances at the bushes, recognizing that his ‘offer’ is masking as a cry from a desperately lonely person. He accepts a cigar, then we sit in silence for a few moments before he shifts tones and begins opening up about his recent heartbreak, while telling tales of life on the streets in Memphis. About half an hour passes and it is time for me to move along, so he requests a song. I ask him to close his eyes as I start to sing Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face”. At the end of the tune, his smile reveals a few missing teeth. When we part ways, I am reminded to be thankful that our meeting had turned out so neutral. Strangers may only be two people who cross paths for a single moment, sharing a hushed understanding of a life that was, and the contrast of what lays ahead on our separate journeys.
Memphis Music (on Beale street) was one of my favorite record stores in the States, as my inner sassy mama jumped with glee upon purchasing a Big Mama Thornton album on Record Store Day. Memphis Music also sells nifty bottle neck guitar slides.
Enjoyed visiting the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum:
“For the earliest days of radio, women have been active in broadcasting as announcers, writers, advertisers, engineers, and executives. In 1955 Memphis’ WHER, owned by Sam Phillips, became the first station in America to feature only women on the air.”
Portable Recording Studio circa 1950
“This reel-to-reel recorder and mixing board were used by Sam Phillips to record undiscovered blues musicians in rural area — sharecropper’s house, country stores and small juke joints.”
Old signage salvaged by the museum.
April 22nd, 2014:
Visited the Lorraine Motel this afternoon, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a sniper on April 4th, 1968 at 6:01p.m. He was pronounced dead at 7:05p.m. Upon hearing the story for the umpteenth time and viewing video clips, something inside me shifted as I stood in the vacant parking lot, and tears began slipping down my cheeks.
I cried for those visionaries who were taken from this world too soon.
I cried for the homeless woman I had hugged earlier,
whose voice shook as she asked for help and the people around us scolded her.
I cried for those who believe that change lingers just out of reach.
I cried for 14-year-old Emmett Till who was beaten to death in 1941
by two white men who considered themselves heroes for killing a black boy.
I cried for those who feel stuck and trapped by their social standing.
I cried for those who still experience racism and oppression on a daily basis.
I cried for those who feel unloved and unworthy.
Thankful for the silence, the wind gently whistled on past to clang with a nearby chain.
I took a few deep breaths and relaxed. I have no shame in crying,
it’s a natural human release from built up empathy.
Visited the STAX Museum afterwards
and that sweet soul music lifted up my spirits once again.
“On this site stood STAX Records, Inc. which boasted such stars as Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Albert King, the Bar-Kays, and many others. It relied upon its deep soul roots to carry it through struggling from a back-street garage in 1957 to becoming a multi-million-dollar organization.”
My stay at the Pilgrim House Hostel (Cooper-Young district) was a lovely area, and I met a number of ladies & gents who had travelled from around North America to either move to or visit Memphis. On my last evening there I was grateful to be given a midnight tour of the iconic Ardent Studios. Among many greats in the sixties, like Sam & Dave, current artists who have recorded there include the impressionable Cat Power, and an emerging duo hailing from Austin, Texas known as Greyhounds – their debut album, Accumulator has been predominantly spinning on Miss Rae’s August playlist.
Miss Rae had a swell time jamming on stage at the Rum Boogie Cafe, the place is covered with signed guitars from a variety of musicians. Earlier that same night while walking down Beale street, a woman named Minnie actually recognized Miss Rae from when she was singing in Mississippi that previous weekend; jamming at the Juke Joint Festival where she sold out of all her CDs.
The best soul food I indulged in while experiencing Tennessee was at Imagine Vegan Cafe
I’ll always recall when I first rode the Memphis city bus to the hostel, and as a blind black man disembarks from our bus, he turns to the driver and pleasantly says,
“May you have a blessed day Sir.” (turns to us passengers)
“May you All have a blessed day.”
Humanity is beautiful.
If Nashville is the heart of Tennessee,
then Memphis are its lungs.
(Stay tuned for a chapter on Miss Rae’s adventures in New Orleans)
Have a listen to this stunning songstress based out of Memphis, Miss Valerie June.
*All Photos © Cheyenne Rae Photography