Sunday, November 8, 2009

Old Wounds.

Memphis is a scarred city.

The history of this place is, sadly, not an unusual tale in our country. The necessary details of the story of Memphis involve racial segregation, hatred, and even murder. One would think, though, that we've moved on from some of these hurts, that, just maybe, some of these aches have healed. Instead, these wounds of this city are visible even today. "You'll like Nashville", said a Memphis resident to me the other day.

"It's like Memphis, but white".

There is still something of a palpable tension in the air here. It is unspoken, and hard to pinpoint, but it is present. Part of me wonders if the murder of Dr. King, which unfortunately occurred in Memphis will keep these wounds from ever properly healing here.

There is hope, yet, I think. For just as Memphis is the scene of great hurts and great sadness, so too did Memphis find the one salve to ease this pain: Music.

People older and wiser than I can tell you about how racially charged America was in the former half of the 20th century. Decades after emancipation, there still existed an uncomfortable tension in the United States, especially in the South. There had to be a breaking point. Something had to give.

Arguably, the man who set this all in motion was Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis Recording Services. This is a man who, in 1950, wanted to record talent, regardless of skin color. His company, which later became Sun Records, originally brought to fame artists like Howlin' Wolf and Riley "B.B." King. But I suspect that then mention of 'Sun Records' will bring another artist to mind for plenty of people.

That person, of course, is Elvis. The past couple of days in Memphis have allowed me the opportunity to dig past all of the overblown commercialization of the life of Elvis Presley and actually discover, for myself, what made the man important in the first place.

In a time where there was clearly defined "black music"- the blues coming from Clarksdale, MS, and "white music"- country from Nashville, it was Memphis, comfortably geographically snuggled between these two cities, that brought them together. In short, Elvis was the first person that didn't make music for white people or black people or whoever. He just made music. Period.

Legend has it that the first time "That's All Right", the first 'true' Elvis song, was played on the radio, the DJ had to play it 14 times in a row. Phone calls were coming non-stop from both black and white people wanting to hear the song. This is the first time this had ever happened.

Now, this isn't an essay on why Elvis was great, or what musical influences he wrought after this record. What this is about is that his music was, I think, a step in overcoming the dividing line in Memphis. For once, it was something that everyone could agree on.

It was this new unity that allowed a musical commiseration for the first time in the American music scene. Without Elvis, it is likely that we would not have had Stax Records, a company responsible for some of the most soulful songs ever. The best part? The house band, Booker T. and the MG's, a funky, soul-driven band, was flanked by two white men on guitars: Steve Cropper on the six-string, and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. Music, at this point in history, was simply music.

The story is familiar from this point. Suddenly, black and white came together for the same music: to write it, to record it, to play it, to dance to it, to love it. For maybe the first time in American history, people were just people.

This is the overwhelming identity I got from Memphis. This is part of why they are so proud of their music. Yes, they are happy to have been the birthplace of Rock and Roll, and they are proud to have launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and other such giants. But more than anything I think the people of this city are just proud that they've found some semblance of healing for the darkest and most heinous, despicable details of our collected history.

For Memphis, it is now, and has always been, about the music.

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