Museums of Memphis / International Blues Challenge

Preface

It is hard to believe that even in 2015, whites in Memphis and the entire Delta area haven’t embraced the blacks for their wonderful spirit and joie de vivre.  Someone told me (I wish I could remember who) many years ago “we must embrace the differences that define us, not let them divide us.”  After attending the IBC, checking out the museums of Memphis, wandering Clarksdale and attending the First Baptist Church service, I say “vive la difference!”

International Blues Challenge

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

In December 2013, a few of Mikey’s Juke Joint groupies (including myself) decided to head to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC) to support the Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams, both of who would be representing southern Alberta at the January 2014 competition.  It was a truly amazing experience, not only did Williams win the competition as the best single/solo act and best guitarist, but I developed a whole new appreciation for the history of the blues and the culture of the south that produced it.

This year’s Challenge happens January 20 – 24 with Calgary’s Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams again representing southern Alberta.

The Museums

One of the great things about visiting Memphis is their trio of music museums – Stax Museum, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Sun Records.

The STAX Museum blew both Brenda (not so much a blues or music keener) and I away with its campus that includes not only the museum, but a charter school and extensive collection.  For anyone interested in the history of 20th century music in North America, this is the place to go. You will learn about the evolution and connections between numerous genres of music – blues, soul, jazz, Bebop, country, gospel, hillbilly, R&B, rock and Pop music.  What I particularly loved about the museum is there is its air of authenticity as much of the history actually happened in Memphis or in the immediate area.  

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

The museum starts with a wonderful 20-minute film, after which you wander at your own pace through hundreds of displays that tell the story of the music with lots of memorabilia.  The highlight was when I complemented an elderly, distinguished-looking man on his great tie.  He thanked me and we got chatting about the museum and how he was visiting with his grandchildren who “wanted to see where their grandfather was” in the museum.  Turns out I was talking to Harold “Scotty” Scott of the Temprees, whose gold record for “Dedicated to the one I love” and other band artifacts we on exhibit.

One take away message I got from this museum was how the pain and hardship deeply penetrated the African American culture of the south and how they sought comfort and solace in their music.

I would recommend anyone visiting the museum, also take an explore a few around the museum, it will reinforced the link between poverty, sense of place and blues music.  The predominately black neighbourhood of empty lots, abandon homes, homes with what looked like religious shrines on the porches and numerous churches looked like many of the images we saw in the museum.

In chatting with Andrew Mosker, CEO, National Music Centre (NMC), who is currently construction a new museum in Calgary, I was told they would be incorporating some of the lessons learned from STAX on how to engage, entertain and educate the public about music.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the NMC could match STAX museum’s authenticity as most of NMC’s artifacts will be imported from elsewhere. Also a big shiny new museum located in a glitzy new master planned urban community seems diametrically opposed to places that are the catalyst for artistic creativity. Time will tell.

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, created by the Smithsonian Institute and located downtown next to the arena provides an excellent overview of the history of Memphis area music from the 1930s to the city’s musical heyday of the ‘70s.  The museum’s digital audio guide offers up over 300 minutes of information including 100 songs that you can listen to while surrounded by artifacts of the time.  It is a total music immersion program not to be missed.

Sun Records, located just outside of the downtown, is easily accessible via the tram and a short walk to the historic building. Like the STAX museum, I think you get a better appreciation for the history and the environment that produced the music when you walk the streets around it.

The lobby of Sun Studio looks like a '50s diner.

What is great and unique about Sun Records is that you get a personal tour led by a local musician.  Sun Records, an American independent record label was founded in Memphis in 1952, by Sam Phillips and financed by Jim Bulliet.  It was here that Phillips discovered and first recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Phillips loved the music of African-Americans and wanted to bring that genre to a mass audience, which changed the world of music, but meant Sun Records struggled to be viable. 

The museum is full of artifacts and your tour guide has amazing stories to tell.  But the highlight of the tour is to stand on in the recording studio where Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and Johnny belted out your favourite songs. The building just oozes history - I am sure I heard Roy singing.

The modest entrance to Sun Studio.

One of  the many artifacts from the early days of Sun Studio.

The recording studio is still used today. It looks like a rec room from the '50s. It is hard to imagine that this is place where the legends of '50s and '60s music created their hits here.

Beale Street

Beale Street, truly one of North America’s iconic streets, is home to the International Blues Competition (IBC). The event utilizes 17 different venues along the street for the 250+ entries from around the world.  The street is hopping with music from noon to the wee hours of the morning. 

For me, the highlight of the Challenge were the midnight jams at the Daisy Theatre (every night various musicians from the competition and past winners put on an impromptu concert, the energy was electrifying).   There are certain art experiences that stand out in my life - seeing Baryshnikov dance from the front row of the Lincoln Centre (1984) and the Hermitage Show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1977) - and the IBC jams on Beale Street.

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

Clarksdale

No trip to Memphis for a blues lover is complete without a road trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi (90 minute drive), considered by some as “ground zero” for the blues. The entire city is a living museum complete with numerous historical plaques and a self-guided map. 

Clarksdale is home to the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 where legend has it iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.   You can also visit the McKinley Morganfield’s (aka Muddy Waters) cabin on Stovall Road. There are lots of tiny cabins still inhabited that serve as a reminder of the poverty that begat the blues.  

When in Clarksdale check out The Delta Blues Museum, WROX radio station on Main Street and all of the other historic sites around town, it will give you a whole new appreciation of how the blues was germinated.

Ground Zero Blues Club opened in 2001 in an old warehouse building with “manufactured authenticity” complements of an old couch and other bric-a-brac on the porch and the tradition of graffiti-like visitors writing of their names anywhere they can find space. names of people who have been there on the walls.  We arrived mid day (nothing was happening), but we did manage to get on stage and pretend we were performing.

In chatting with Holger Petersen (veteran CBC and CKUA blues broadcaster), after his talk about the history of the blues at NMC a few years back he told me Ground Zero was one of his favourite places to listen to the blues. You could easily spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Clarksdale, checking out the museum, eating dinner and listening to an act Ground Zero and maybe even book yourself a room at the Riverside Hotel, established in 1944, where the the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williams and Ike Turner had been guests.

It truly is a sacred place.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Panels like these are located throughout the city, creating an informative self-guided walking tour. 

WROX radio
Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Barry (another Mikey's groupie) and I on stage at Ground Zero Blues Club. 

Gospel Revelation

No trip to Memphis is complete without attending a Sunday morning Gospel Church service. While many trek to the well-publicized Al Green church service near Graceland, we were fortunate to notice during our wanderings that at the end of Beale Street is the First Baptist Church (built in 1880, it is believed to be the first brick-constructed, multi-story church built by African Americans).  We like authenticity so this seemed like the perfect choice.

So on Sunday morning, when many IBC revellers were still recovering from their Saturday night festivities, we headed to church.   Wanting to be respectful, we tried toquietly walk in and sit at the back, but that was not to be.  We were immediately welcomed like long lost family, hands were shaken, we were given a program, and by the end hugs were shared and we were part of “the family.”  I have never experienced a more friendly welcoming. 

At the beginning of the service, all-newcomers were welcomed by name and where they were visiting from.  We were asked to stand to be recognized and invited to say a few words. Then amateur singers and preachers started to perform building to a crescendo with a large female choir and professional passionate preacher that made both your body and soul shiver. I don’t think I have ever heard so many AMENs in my life. 

Initially planning to only stay for 30 minutes or so, we were mesmerized we stayed for the entire two-hour service.  We were even invited to join them for lunch afterwards.  It was a magical experience. Amen!

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