America at Last – Part 11
By Parson Thru
I can’t remember where I first heard the blues played. It may have been on an early Rolling Stones album that I bought in the ‘70s: The Rolling Stones Number 2 in mono - mainly straight covers of the songs of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. It would be years before I'd hear the originals. When you’re young, recording quality is a big factor in what you’ll listen to. It was probably around 1992 when I heard an acoustic blues guitarist playing live in a pub in York.
I’ve been playing guitar badly for over twenty-five years. I’ve been drawn to many styles and have trod the blues path like many before me. So it was with great expectation that we rounded the corner into Beale Street, Memphis. The afternoon rain had ceased and the evening sky was empty and reddening over the city roofs. The first building I spotted was B. B. King’s store, across from a bar and restaurant selling ribs. The air carried the unmistakable pulse of the blues. Wheel me in.
From the 1930s, the Great Depression and mechanisation drove sharecroppers off the land in Mississippi, to the south. Families moved up to the city in their thousands in search of work and a wage. They came up from the Delta region bringing their traditions and their music with them. Beale Street became a meeting point – a centre for music and entertainment. W. C. Handy popularised Delta blues there with his band.
But this was the era of the acoustic blues guitarist and harmonica player – the time of legends such as Robert Johnson. It reminds me of the Dark Ages in Britain, with its myths and mystery. Robert Johnson is said to have made a deal with the devil under a tree somewhere in the badlands – swapping his soul for the blues. They say that he was poisoned by a woman, delivering his side of the deal. Handy toured Mississippi and produced some of the only recordings of these phantoms of the Delta.
Beale Street, today, looks a little like Nashville Broadway. The wild times have been tamed and the genre presented in a form that is safe and accessible for tourists – a heavy police presence ensures it. Maybe a dozen bars pump out live music from local blues players and blues journeymen. We looked high and low in the bars and on street-corners for acoustic blues and found only small electric combos. When I asked, no one seemed to recall any acoustic players in the area – things had moved on. Electric blues was what people wanted to play and hear.
We grabbed a table on the street outside a bar on the corner of Beale and South 3rd Avenue. The street is effectively split here by police barriers, sealing off traffic. Behind the barriers, five gleaming police Harleys were parked in formation, leaning left onto their stands with a blue police helmet mounted on each right-hand mirror. We ordered chicken and a beer and watched the world pass by. Presently, the cops sauntered out of the Irish bar over the street and stood chatting by their bikes. There was a ripple of engines starting from one end of the pack and helmets were strapped on before the five took off like the Red Arrows, each following the other out onto the road in full exhibitionist mode.
Later, we crossed South 3rd Ave and explored the far end of the street, stopping to read a sign prohibiting cycles, skates, skateboards and reptiles. Pinned next to it, as an after-thought, was a small notice prohibiting handguns. Things were less formal and more hustled – more local – with open stalls off the street and buskers playing a style that was closer to Hendrix. It was when the penny dropped for me: Hendrix was a blues player. Sorry, you’ll just have to forgive me that oversight.
We doubled back and walked into Handy’s Juke (who knows? Maybe it really was) and stood among a growing throng in the tunnel-like rough-brick interior. On the stage was a pork-pie-hat-wearing singer belting out class harmonica and singing with all the soul he could muster as his band carried him aloft. And this was only night one. Afterwards, we walked back through Beale and turned right towards Union Street and the motel, paying our respects to sleeping Greyhounds as we passed.
Saturday morning was grey and wet. We headed over the road to Denny’s restaurant for breakfast. Natasha had visited the States with her parents as a child and raved about the breakfasts served at Denny’s. And, yep, you could eat yourself silly here. Coffees first: white and sugared for me, then grits – I had to try grits. Well you have to, don’t you? Have to say I’d rather have porridge. But pancakes with maple syrup and bacon? Grits I could leave, but the pancakes were something else.
Because of the rain, we looked for something under cover and checked out tourist information. I’m not really the museum type, but the weather was pretty shit. Trips to Graceland, the out of town home of Elvis, were running, but it was already lunchtime. So we spent Saturday in the Museum of Rock and Soul, which is actually a fantastic multi-media, interactive story of the music of the region. This was the city showcasing its gift to the world – and who can blame them? It was like the Jorvick Viking Centre in my hometown of York, but sooo much richer. You couldn’t separate the story of the music from the story of the people – of the poverty shared by black and white alike and of the burgeoning civil rights movement. I don’t need to describe the soundtrack.
We followed that with a tour of the Gibson guitar factory just around the corner from Beale Street. Whoooee! A giant-sized figure of B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille, stands in the reception. In the workshop, it’s surprising just how hand-built the guitars still are. The Memphis factory produces the hollow and semi-hollow bodied models, such as the ES-335 blues guitars. Major parts are shaped by machine, but then clamped and glued by hand. The spray-booth actually has a real-live man in it applying those great finishes, and the electrics are fitted by hand. I didn’t get chance to look, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sticker on the finished guitars saying “Proudly made in the USA”.
That night, we drifted along Beale Street taking in the atmosphere, the cocktails, the music and the giant turkey legs – hot and wrapped in foil. We watched a soul-blues show-band in an alley area, where they started a party that extended out onto the street. Further along, the pedestrianized road cleared and a crowd formed to cheer youngsters on as they tumbled, twisted and back-flipped over the cobbles for tips. We mooched in and out of bars, winding up in TGI Friday’s on the road back to the motel. The bar was friendly and good-natured and I stood at the bar waiting to be served. And I stood. And I stood.
Soon there was no one waiting but us. I called the barmaid. She came over and asked for ID. I hadn’t been asked for ID anywhere. I have a grey beard and greying hair. I checked my pockets but didn’t have any. “You’re kidding?” I asked. She wasn’t kidding. I pointed to my beard. “No ID, no drink.” I tried to make a joke, but she wasn’t having any. After standing like an idiot for a while I called her over again. “Hey, I’ve found it!” I pulled out a dollar bill and showed her Abe Lincoln and his grey beard. “Here you go. It’s me!” We didn’t get served. We were the only two people with white skin in the bar. I felt uncomfortable even asking myself the question. We didn’t get asked for ID again on the whole trip.