Memphis – a city that exemplifies the word Resilience. The “birthplace of the blues” was founded upon a bluff along the Mississippi River. The cliffside location made for easy transportation up and down the river, and unlike elsewhere in the vicinity, it would not flood. Resilience to the forces of nature.
Resilience to the forces of oppression would be found in the mid 19th century, within a remarkable “way station” along the Underground Railroad. The slaves fighting back. Resilience in the face of evil.
Post-Slavery Mosquito-Borne Yellow Fever
The years after slavery brought poverty and horrific sanitation conditions to the city. Memphis could not withstand the onslaught of Yellow Fever. Thousands died, and while wealthy whites were able to flee the scourge, poor blacks could not. Luckily for them, the deadly plague was far less fatal than it was for other peoples. The theory goes that continuous exposure to the disease amongst their African ancestors back on the continent was passed down to them and protected them. Immunology passed down from parent to child. Resilience.
The Era of the Struggle for Civil Rights
Shortly after the horrors of this massive Yellow Fever outbreak, a revolutionary sewer system and fresh water aquifer brought relief to the city. Memphis managed to pull through in no small part due to the heroic efforts of its surviving African American residents, many of whom helped allay the suffering of both whites and blacks. When it was all said and done, however, Memphis still refused to confer civil rights upon everyone. Blacks continued to be paid far less than whites. Their education was poorer, and they were kept from voting. Their civil rights struggles persist to the present day. Thankfully, they don’t give up. They are resilient.
Birth of the Blues
I bring up the resilience of the city to help explain its history as the birthplace of blues and rock. It’s been said that only those who suffer create noteworthy music. Listen closely to early blues and rock. Sure, “I’ve got the blues” is a struggling musician’s outlet to express despair. But pay attention too, to their defiant, rebellious cries for hope and joy. These musicians, ever resilient, form the backbone upon which Memphis pride passionately stands today.
Everyone knows Memphis is the home of Elvis Presley. The “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis gave your great-grandparents the vapors when their children (your grandparents!) eagerly watched him gyrate on TV. The King was quite the living legend in his day with his blues and gospel-inspired rock music. He made his Memphis home at Graceland, a major American tour attraction.
If you’re in Memphis with your grandfolks and they want to visit Graceland, by all means, go! Over 600,000 people a year enjoy checking out the King’s amusingly retro shag carpet, TV, airplanes, vehicles and more. Your grandparents will especially revere his grave site on the property.
Having noted all the above, I would not recommend a stop at Graceland if you are on a tight schedule or budget. The kitsch factor is fun, but visitors complain the tours are highly overpriced, and you don’t get to see the inner sanctum of the residence (Elvis’ upstairs living quarters).
Instead, visit the studio where the King’s voice and music first burst onto the scene. The epicenter of the birthplace of rock and blues is a much better stop for music lovers. Sun Studio is this place. The renowned recording studio is still in full use today, at night. During the day, the facility hosts scores of tourists gawking at the instruments, costumes, memorabilia and music of a bygone era. Grandma can always revel in the fact that Elvis haunted these very same walls. Bonus: delicious milkshakes served here!
In conjunction with Sun Studios, you definitely should check out the Smithsonian-sponsored Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum. According to their website,
This museum tells of the musical pioneers and legends of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds who, for the love of music, overcame obstacles to create the musical sound that changed the world… A digital audio tour guide takes visitors at their own pace through seven galleries featuring 3 audio visual programs, more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes and other musical treasures.
The Gibson guitar factory across the street is a wonderful adjunct to the Rock ‘N Soul Museum, even if you don’t play guitar. Watch master luthiers in action and pick up your very own guitar in the gift shop.
While in town, take some time to visit some inspiring attractions dedicated to the fight for Civil Rights.
Your first stop should be the Slave Haven / Burkle Estate Museum. This stop on the Underground Railroad should only take an hour or so of your day. You’ll discover what many heroes of the time (including abolitionist Jacob Burkle, a German businessman whose home you’ll tour) did to help runaway slaves find freedom at long last.
Move on to the incredible, heart-rending exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel. This is the very site where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. His motel room has been left as he himself left it nearly 50 years ago. Plan to spend several hours here because the exhibits span a lengthy timeline, from ancient slavery practices to the push for Black Power and ongoing civil rights activities. You will definitely want to set aside some time for quiet reflection here.
Hey, you’ve gotta eat. While you’re in town, you must try some of the best barbecue in the world! One of the most exemplary joints stands right across the street. Central BBQ is renowned for its yummy smoked pork, chicken, turkey, ribs and more. The atmosphere is casual for such serious barbecue. Do not miss it!
Outdoors lovers will be in heaven alongside the mighty Mississippi River that borders the city. If time permits, stroll Beale Street – you’re too young to go to the clubs, but you’ll experience the blues up close in its natural habitat! Then stop at Beale Street Landing, with its lovely views of downtown, Tom Lee Park, with its paved walking path parallel to the river, or the Mud Island River Park, showcasing a scale model of the Mississippi near the Mississippi River Museum. Hopefully you’ll have time for all three!
You’ll be famished afterwards, so what better time to try out the nearby Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken? Each crunchy breast, wing, leg and drumstick is spicy, but not too hot! There is usually a considerable wait but it’s so worth it!
Now let’s talk about Rollin’ in Memphis. For simple yet heart-pounding excitement, race indoors in the 40,000 square foot indoor go kart track at the Autobahn Indoor Speedway. Separate courses are designed for the thrill of adults and well as youngsters. Considering you must wear a helmet, and the European-designed electric vehicles’ speeds can go up to 30, 40, or even 50 miles per hour, this is no baby bumper car ride!
How have you overcome the obstacles in your life (and off the raceway)? Do you have any creative outlets, and how do they help? Let me know in the comments!