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A throbbing two-block entertainment district is all that is left of old Beale Street, most of which was razed in urban renewal schemes. (Lucian Perkins)

The Soul of Memphis

Despite setbacks, the Mississippi River city has held onto its rollicking blues joints, smokin' barbecue and welcoming, can-do spirit

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Before I went to Memphis, I visited Kenneth T. Jackson, 70, a proud native son of Memphis and an urban historian at Columbia University. He and his wife, Barbara, a former high-school English teacher, were college sweethearts at Memphis State (now the University of Memphis), and she keeps a Southern magnolia in their Chappaqua, New York, front yard as a reminder of home.

The couple has fond memories of the Memphis they knew in the 1950s, when Boss Crump himself might appear with his entourage at a Friday night football game, passing out candy bars to the cheerleaders. “He had this long white hair, and he’d wear a white hat and a white suit—he was so dapper,” Barbara said. “It was as if the guardian angel of Memphis had come down to mix among the people.”

The Jacksons also remember tuning in to a hopped-up deejay named Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), whose nightly WHBQ radio broadcast, “Red Hot & Blue,” attracted a devoted following in both the white and African-American communities. It was Dewey Phillips who catapulted Elvis’ career on the night of July 8, 1954, when he previewed Presley’s debut single, “That’s All Right (Mama),” playing it over and over until teenagers all around town were in a fever, then hauling the astonished young crooner out of a neighborhood movie theater to submit to his first interview ever. “Just don’t say nothin’ dirty,” Phillips instructed him.

Though music people like Dewey and Sam Phillips were playing havoc with the color line, segregation was still the law of the land throughout Dixie. And race, Jackson maintains, is the inescapable starting point for understanding Memphis.

“There’s a famous saying that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg,” he said. “It’s a rich agricultural area, drained by the river, that’s part of what is known as the Black Belt. Memphis grew up as a commercial entrepôt, a trading center for cotton, slaves, hardwood lumber and livestock—it was even the world’s largest mule market, right into the 1950s. By the turn of the last century, Memphis had become the unofficial capital of both cotton culture and the Black Belt. Beale Street was arguably the cultural heart of the African-American world.”

Today, Memphis’ population of 650,100 is 63 percent black. The nation’s 19th largest city is also the eighth poorest, with the sad distinction of having the highest U.S. infant mortality rate—twice the average. Over the past half-century, Memphis has lost ground to Atlanta and other Southern cities, and it pains Jackson to talk about his hometown’s self-inflicted wounds, political corruption and downtown neglect. But he hasn’t given up. “I think cities can change,” he said. “If New York can do it, why the hell can’t Memphis?” At a time when many cities have lost their distinctive character, Jackson thinks the effort is worth it. “Memphis still has soul,” he added.

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I closed my eyes on the flight from New York, lulled by an all-Memphis iPod playlist heavy on underappreciated jazzmen such as Phineas Newborn Jr., George Coleman and Jimmie Lunceford. When the pilot announced our descent to Memphis International Airport, I flipped up the window shade to find column after column of fiercely billowing thunderheads. We shuddered through them into a vista of flat, lush farmland edging into suburban developments with curlicued street plans, then, near the airport, a series of immense truck terminals and warehouses. On the runway, I glimpsed the vast fleet of purple-tailed FedEx jets that help account for Memphis International’s ranking as the world’s busiest cargo airport.

After checking in to my hotel, I jumped aboard the Main Street trolley at the Union Avenue stop around the corner. Memphis trolleys are restored trams from cities as far-flung as Oporto, Portugal, and Melbourne, Australia, with brass fittings, antique lighting fixtures and hand-carved mahogany corbels. At every turn, our conductor pointed out highlights in a melodious accent that was hard to pin down. Louisiana Cajun, maybe? “No, sir, I’m from Kurdistan,” allowed the conductor, Jafar Banion.

When we passed AutoZone Park, home of baseball’s Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, Banion noted that the new downtown ballpark—the minor leagues’ answer to Baltimore’s Camden Yards—is earthquake-proof. It’s a good thing, too, since Memphis lies at the southern end of the New Madrid seismic fault system; in 1812, a titanic quake temporarily caused a portion of the Mississippi to run backward. Soon we caught sight of the Pyramid—the 32-story stainless steel–clad arena on the banks of the Mississippi—a nod to Memphis’ namesake (and sister city) on the Nile in Egypt. Though eclipsed as a sports and convention venue by the newer FedExForum, the Pyramid remains the most striking feature of the Memphis skyline. “Every time I see it, it reminds me of my uncle and his camels,” Banion said, laughing.

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