January 5, 2020 6:00:18 am
A nippy breeze blew across the mighty Mississippi, lightly slapping the ends of the jacket and whipping the tassels of the stole wrapped around the neck. The tall grass that grew abundantly along the bank swayed as it caught the breeze. A wide path ran parallel to the river, deserted in the early morning hour save for an occasional jogger or cyclist. A still but tranquil silence hung in the air; even large boats glided past noiselessly.
But as the path wound around a charming picnic area and a little children’s park, the silence was interrupted by a faint lilting blues tune. The path led to a large building and the music was flowing softly from the little speakers set on its grounds. It turned out to be an information centre and a towering statue of Elvis Presley holding a guitar-dominated the entrance. Further ahead was another towering one of BB King, the blues’ pioneer.
In Memphis, this was a scene that would repeat itself over and over, while music was, literally, everywhere. More so in 2019, as the city celebrated its bicentennial year, stressing on its musical pedigree, with the signature line “Bring your soul.” Whether blues, rock ’n’ roll or soul, Memphis seemed to not just attract visitors but pilgrims, the leading attraction being Graceland, where the faithful made a beeline to pay their respects to the king himself — Elvis Presley.
At the height of his popularity, hordes of groupies were known to camp outside the gates of Graceland, located a few kilometres from Downtown Memphis, for a mere glimpse of the star. Today, the area is filled with vehicles bringing in tourists eager to pay homage to him though he’s been gone for over four decades. Spread over nearly 15 acres, Graceland was Presley’s estate with rolling green lawns in the middle of which stands a colonial revival-style mansion. Inside, visitors wandered around the luxurious rooms that give a glimpse into his lifestyle — living and dining rooms, the basement where he had a theatre and a den on the first floor with a jungle theme, while the whole place swirled with his music. But nothing was more enchanting than him crooning, “Can’t help falling in love with you,” which seemed to play on a loop.
Much of the mansion and the estate has been preserved from Presley’s time and it felt like one was walking through his life. The most melancholic spot, though, was a little open-air circular structure where his grave is located. Across the road from the mansion was a series of displays which included his two planes, collection of cars, motorbikes, guitars, pianos and other artefacts.
If Graceland seemed frozen in time, then Beale Street, another of Memphis’ historic areas, seemed vibrantly alive, especially in the evening. The street was lined with pubs, bars and clubs and was a living tribute to Memphis’ other big name — BB King. As evening turned to night, fluorescent signs lit up the street while live music spilled from every establishment. Several vintage cars were parked on the street while the pavements were crowded with people flitting from one club to another. Near an intersection along the road, a little enclosure housed a statue of King on a pedestal. Every few steps, the pavements had been inlaid with metallic plates in the shape of musical notes, inscribed with the names of greats who had performed in the city. As the night progressed, the music got louder and the whole street seemed to pulsate with the collective rhythm.
Elsewhere in the city, there were more nostalgic pointers to its musical lineage. It was at Sun Records, formerly a radio station, that Presley was discovered. Here, he sang alongside greats like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lewis. A gigantic black-and-white photograph of Presley dominated the wall behind the bar counter, which was where he supposedly hung out between sessions. The bar and the building adjacent to it which housed the radio station had been preserved as a museum. Display cases were crammed with artefacts and instruments that went back to Elvis’ time. It was Sun Records that first launched him and some of the equipment he used were still at hand for visitors to strike cheesy poses for selfies and photographs. At the other end of town, Stax, the museum of soul music provided the substance and backgrounder to the epithet Soul City that Memphis carried with such ease.
As I wandered around the city, I found music in the unlikeliest of places. It was not a city with obvious charms. Rather, its hold was subtle and unseen, but incredibly tenacious. So much so that there are several hundred songs written as an ode to it. But it was the lovely notes from Tom T Hall’s 1969 country song, That’s how I got to Memphis, that seemed to constantly pop up in the head, with Memphis being both a geographical location and a metaphor for an aspirational destination. Somehow, it seemed fitting.
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