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.