Soulsville, USA

March 18, 2008

Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. and the MGs. All from Soulsville, USA, otherwise known as Memphis. Soulsville is the neighborhood surrounding Stax recording studio. A huge number of big names in soul music and early rock-n-roll came from just a few square blocks. Pretty amazing, actually.

We went to Stax, now the Museum of American Soul Music, on Friday afternoon. I hadn’t heard of many of the acts, but I had heard their music! In the museum, an entire church- one of those small wooden buildings that I love so much- was reconstructed in the main room. It was the actual original building, built a hundred years ago, and donated by the congregation. The display was all about the gospel roots of soul, and therefore of rock-n-roll.

The whole place was amazing. It was formerly a small movie theater, turned into a recording studio by a white couple that loved black music. They got all the neighborhood talent and recorded hundred and hundreds of albums. The playback was in the bathroom, and the recording was done on converted film equipment. From this small place in the middle of a bad neighborhood in Memphis, came music that changed the world.

There was short film at Stax about the musicians and writers who grew to love the place. They were like a big family, and worked all day and all night just innovating and doing what they loved. Black and white, working together at a time when that was pretty dangerous. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. The black musician’s music began to take more of a political stance. Eventually, the label went under and the building fell into disrepair. Things changed for good at Stax, but the music and the artists were just getting started.

After getting a feel for that side of Memphis, we went back to the hotel to get ready for a night out on Beale Street. Apparently, this is supposed to be the big party street in Memphis, akin to 6th Street in Austin. That didn’t (and doesn’t) sound like a lot of fun to me, but everyone was going and I didn’t want to be a poor sport. So I got ready, did my hair, and put on some heels. A lot of people had been joking about how they were going to get drunk, which is really not something I wanted to be a part of, but I thought I could go and have a good time anyway. Not so.

First, the good things. A group of us decided to eat dinner before walking around, so we set out in search of some good Memphis food. Beale Street is a short block or two, blocked off from traffic. Neon signs above every door, lots of themed bars and clubs (B.B.King’s, Pat O’Reilly’s, and Wet Willy’s, for example). We wandered down the street for a while and found Rum Boogie Cafe. Live music, tons of signed guitars hanging from the ceiling, and- small world- the original neon Stax sign from when the original building was sold before being turned into a museum. Got some good salad, tasted some great gator gumbo, took cute pictures with my friends. The music was good.

And that is all the good stuff. Other than that, people were drinking too much and once you are done eating there is nothing left to do but wander around. Since all Beale Street has is bars and clubs, if you have already eaten and aren’t drinking there is nothing to do. Creepy guys try to hit on you. Sketchy guys try to sell you novelty glow stick necklaces. Drunk guys wander around looking drunk.

So, I consider Beale Street the only wasted part of the trip. (ha, no pun intended) The drive back to the hotel was long, and not worth mentioning aside from saying that I once again found myself sober and bored in the company of many people who were quite the opposite on both counts.

We spent Thursday morning in Montgomery, going to the Rosa Parks Museum. It’s run by Troy University and is sitting right on the corner where Rosa Parks was arrested. It’s kind of odd, having a whole museum dedicated to what was about ten minutes of history, but it put the whole event into context.

For example, a lot of the time in schools kids are taught that Rosa Parks was just really tired after a long day and did not feel like getting up. In reality she was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and was trained in non-violence. A month or so before her arrest another young woman was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But that woman was unmarried and rumored to be pregnant, so the NAACP declined to turn her situation into a court case- they didn’t want to give their opponents any ammunition. So, the group was waiting for the chance to test the system when Rosa Parks was arrested.

The museum had a really cool display that consisted of an actual bus with TV screens in each window. It must have been one big screen stretched out, because the idea was that you were standing outside of the bus watching the events unfold inside. So, there were actors on the screen filling the whole bus. Very interesting.

We ate lunch, again, on the campus of Alabama State University. This time we sat right in the middle of the cafeteria, and this time I saw three white students, who looked like they were on the football team. ASU is 10% white.

After that we left Montgomery, on the way to Meridian. Right outside of Meridian is Okatibee Baptist Church, and next to that is the historically black cemetery from my previous post, where James Chaney is buried. Over the years (more than 40 now) since his body and that of his two friends were found, his grave has been abused in various ways. There are now thick steel supports behind his tombstone, because people repeatedly used trucks to pull it out of the ground or to topple it over. His picture, once etched into an oval near the top of the stone, was shot out with a gun years ago. There was once an eternal flame at the foot of his grave; it was destroyed. Now, his mother is interred right next to him, and a chain- broken- surrounds his grave.

The rest of the grave yard (you can scroll down for pictures) is nestled between old trees. Some graves are very new, some very old. Some are still covered in just dirt, some are mounded, others not. Some have elaborate headstones, others- quite a few others- have a simple metal stake stuck into the ground, provided by the funeral home. To the side, the sound of a piano drifts over from the small Okatibee Baptist church building.

A block away the stars and bars of the Confederate flag wave from a pole in front of a mobile home.

That night was spent in a hotel much like the others we have been in all week, and for dinner a group of us went to Bridget’s, a local restaurant recommended by the front desk. As it turns out, the manager of the hotel is named Bridget, and she owns the restaurant. So, not exactly an unbiased review.

What a strange experience that was! It was actually a tiny house, smaller than my family’s in Houston. It was remodeled to be more open, and small four-person tables were set up all around. White table clothes, “fancy” art prints on the wall, the works- but it was clearly a converted house. There were about 16 of us, and we asked if we could move a few of the table together so groups of 8 could sit together. No, they said, they preferred to keep the tables apart so that they could go table-by-table. Never mind that the tables were literally about two feet apart anyway!

There was one lady clearly in charge. I would describe her as a modern hillbilly. She was dressed normally and had a cute haircut, but had this crazy thick accent and had smoker’s skin. The one waitress had only worked there two days. She was so young, but wore a wedding band. And, boy, was she slow! I ordered a crab cake sandwich without the bread, and she stared at me for about 15 seconds before saying that she didn’t think they could do that. I said “Oh, that’s OK, just take off the bread and stick it on a plate.” More staring. Then, “OK, I can ask.” Hm.

Same story with everyone else’s order. Then the manager came out about 30 minutes later to have us reorder with her since it was all messed up. Then we got the original order anyway, when the food came out another 20 minutes later. Then, when we finished eating two tables of our groups had yet to even get their food. When we got the checks, we discovered that the waitress had written little nicknames at the top so she could keep us straight. All four of us. I was “curly”.

All in all a huge waste of money (because, yes, after all of that, it was seriously overpriced).

So, and interesting day on all accounts. The next morning we woke up and hit the road for Philadelphia, Mississippi. Yes, the worst state in the nation as far as race relations was about to get a visit from yours truly. Never thought that would happen!

Christina recently pointed out some strange things that she has learned about me from being around me so much this summer. “Oh goody!”, I thought. “I love being odd!”

So I guess I am particularly fond of graveyards, clean pillowcases, fresh cherries, squirrels, mushrooms for breakfast, clean feet, lint-free clothing (and hence, lint rollers), and exploring! Oh, and sheep.

The clean feet thing became really apparent in Paris, where our feet got really dirty from walking around the subway and streets all day. I started carrying around anti-bacterial wipes and constantly asking Christina “Do my feet look dirty to you?” Haha, she was so annoyed. It was a losing battle, though. I think the last straw was when I asked her what she thought about me washing my feet in this bidet-like thing in our bathroom that looked more like a low sink and was maybe broken. I didn’t though, don’t worry. But I was tempted to.

Every morning here at Univ they serve a “full English breakfast”, which consists of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes, baked beans, cereal, yogurt, coffee, and orange juice. The mushrooms seemed like the best source of protein in that bunch so I have them every morning and they are delicious.

Also, there are graveyards (more specifically, graves) everywhere here! There will be one or two gravestones stuck in a corner of a garden, or next to a random sidewalk. Of course, there are also graveyards next to every church and more besides. Cool! It is so interesting to read the inscriptions, especially with the old ones. In the oldest graveyards there are lots and lots of children, I suppose because the life expectancy was so low and medical knowledge was lacking. Most of the gravestones I’ve seen list the name, dates of birth and death, age of the person when they died, closest relatives- sometimes even how they died. Fantastic!

OK, those are just some thoughts for now. I just got back from tea at The Rose, a great little tea place right down High Street. Classic Cream Tea is two just-made hot scones with fresh clotted cream and strawberry jam and a pot of tea. I had Earl Grey…mmmm. The pots of tea have the leaves right in them, so the bright yellow tea cups come with little strainers to pour your tea through. It’s fun. There is no way you can have a bad afternoon once you’ve had Cream Tea.

Ahmed’s Kabob Stand

July 9, 2007

Ahmed is a Moroccan guy who parks his food truck right outside the Univ main gate every night around 8pm. There is usually another, younger guy with him- I think his son. He stays around until 3 or 4 in the morning. This seems a little silly, but everything here in Oxford closes around 7pm at the very, very latest unless it is a pub or club of some kind. Even the pubs close around 11pm.

Ahmed is really nice and serves good food. He must have over 100 menu choices. He serves all kinds of burgers, hot sandwiches, chicken nuggets, chips (french fries), kabobs, hummus, falafel, and chili cheese fries. Ahmed'sHe cooks everything on the grill in his van, and even makes his own chickpea hummus, which, he says, is way better than that silly garbanzo bean hummus some people try to pass off as authentic. He may or may not be referring to the one or two other kabob trucks that park further up High Street, but I wouldn’t know since we are all loyal to Ahmed and would never dream of consuming a kabob from anywhere else.

Around 3 in the morning you can hear all the drunks lining up to buy late night meals. Rumor has it that Ahmed owns several restaurants around Oxford but likes running the kabob stand the best. It seems like he has a lot of fun. Earlier this summer he kept asking Jamie, our Oxfordian PA, when the SMU kids would be arriving.

He likes me because I have an Arabic name, and gives me free chips when I order falafel, which is what I always get. Very cool. Even the SMU professors here are fond of Ahmed and say things like “He’s our man”.