April 1, 2005


The backwater that rocked the world: As a preview to this month’s Barbican celebration of the Mississippi city, we devote time to the historic home of the blues and rock’n’roll. Here, our correspondent makes his own pilgrimage to Tennessee and finds how racial tensions triggered the revolution (John Clarke, 4/01/05, Times of London))

THERE are plenty of musical cities around the world but none of them has come close to having the same worldwide impact on popular music as Memphis, Tennessee.

“They’ve got catfish on the table, they’ve got gospel in the air,” sang Marc Cohn in Walking in Memphis. There’s also the tradition of blues, jazz and country music that stretches back decades. It’s a city where black met white and set off a seismic musical shift that still reverberates today. That such a revolution took place in a racially-segregated city which many saw as backward and reactionary is just one of the paradoxes of Memphis.

It was in the years immediately after the Secord World War that Memphis music changed irrevocably. The city became a stopping-off point for thousands of black people who left the Mississippi Delta in search of prosperity in the big cities. Many of those passing through stopped and put down roots. And it wasn’t just a black migration. Vernon and Gladys Presley, with their young son Elvis, moved to Memphis from rural Tupelo in 1948 in search of a better life.

Sam C. Phillips, a recording engineer, had moved to Memphis from Alabama and ended up supervising big-band broadcasts from the Peabody Hotel. But as the Presley biographer Peter Guralnick has pointed out, Phillips had a nobler idea in mind. “I thought to myself: suppose that I would have been born black . . . I think I felt from the beginning the total iniquity of man’s inhumanity to his brother.”

Phillips opened his own recording studio in 1950 with the aim of of “providing an opportunity for some of the great negro artists”. And great they were, ranging from the gut-bucket blues of the larger than life Howlin’ Wolf, the artist he called his greatest discovery, to the one-man-band Dr Ross.

That didn’t stop Presley...

Mr. Cohn's tune also contains one of the better lines in all of rock...:
[T]here's a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room

...though we, of course, deplore the implications.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 1, 2005 7:19 AM

Interesting. While "Walking" is one of my favorite tunes, I've never cared for that one line ... it's always struck me as vaguely misogenistic. On the other hand, I love the line about being Christian for the occasion.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 1, 2005 4:38 PM

All great rock music is misogynist.

Posted by: oj at April 1, 2005 4:47 PM

By one definition of "great", I suppose. By another, all great rock is anarchic ... or at least subversive.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 1, 2005 4:56 PM

Enough silliness. Some great rock is misogyonistic. But not, for example, "Powderfinger".

Posted by: ghostcat at April 1, 2005 5:25 PM

I got to keep moving, to stay home coz Im freezing in this room
And If I prove no good here Ill skip to where I should
Its only an imaginary vigil that we keep
You salvage what you need, and take the love you leave

I love your way
I cant explain
What made me change


Im wading in deeper, ever deeper as I go
I drown the whole idea as I drift away from you
Its only an imaginary vigil that we keep
You salvage what you need, Ill take the love you leave

Posted by: oj at April 1, 2005 5:37 PM

Curse you, Brother Judd! I wondered if you'd be hip enough to pull that off! (Of course, with Google anybody can find anything.)

While I was out with the Missus just now, I spotted a rear window decal for "Neil Young University". That old man is a genius, but maybe them Aussie whippersnappers are good, too. Course, I've never heard them.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 1, 2005 9:29 PM