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A Whole Lotta Blues and History – Wandering in Memphis

Memphis has a complex history full of music and civil rights milestones. We spent two weeks exploring (and working) while staying at Graceland RV Park. Yes, really. And, no, we didn’t tour Graceland or the huge Experience Graceland even though they were within walking distance. Can you believe it? I know. I know. Don’t get me wrong. We like Elvis and respect his talent, we’re not fanatics, though; and we just didn’t get excited looking at all of the tour options. We did explore a lot of other cultural places though!

While researching things to do in Memphis, we found that Playhouse on the Square was putting on Cabaret. This is a play I absolutely love, so we snatched up tickets for the day after we arrived – the last night of the show. The cast and crew were amazing! It really was a superb performance. The theater itself is lovely and we definitely suggest checking to see what’s playing when you’re in town.

Beale Street

Much of our time in Memphis was spent exploring Beale Street and the surrounding area. Beale Street, for those who don’t know, is where blues started to really become public. Initially, the street was formed in the 1840s as a place where black merchants could own shops and their customers didn’t have to worry about being segregated within them. Local black musicians started playing blues, jazz, and gospel. People started hearing this music that used to just be played on porches or in church and word spread. Eventually, there was a radio station and two major recording studios, and the blues started spreading around the country. Memphis is called the Home of the Blues for a reason!

William (WC) Handy, known as the Father of Blues, didn’t actually create the musical genre, but he was the first to actually have his music recorded and was a very influential songwriter and composer. His statue is in a Beale Street courtyard where it seemed like a live band was always playing – at least every time we were in the area. To me, this little spot was quintessential Beale Street!

Of course, no trip to Beale Street would be complete without stopping by BB King’s Blues Club. The local bands were awesome and the food was excellent southern soul! We also toured the Rock and Soul Museum, which was filled with the musical history of the area and tons of displays from old jukeboxes to some of the great jazz and blues singers’ clothing and instruments.

Our finer dining experiences including BB King’s Itta Bena, which is located upstairs from the Blues Club. The windows are all tinted, so the entire restaurant is cast in a soft blue glow. We had wonderful service, amazing food, and lovely ambiance – including a great sultry jazz singer. Definitely try their She-Crab Soup. It’s incredible! Itta Bena is only barely – and I mean barely – second to another restaurant we visited near the waterfront.

Flight was the best meal experience we had while in Memphis. They serve their food in tasting flights (or as single entrees.) I enjoyed their steak flight, which included beef, elk, and bison. It normally comes with a starch on each tasting, but our server and the chef/cooks were very accommodating and gave me extra vegetables instead. (Well, I did cheat on our keto eating by having a little of their au gratin potatoes, which were so worth it. Best I’ve ever had anywhere!) We absolutely recommend both restaurants when you’re in Memphis. Splurge, have at least one date night, and enjoy!

The Riverfront

Before our dinner at Flight, we decided to see if we could get to the river so I could put my feet in it. (Another water first!) We found a cute little park on Mud Island, which seems to be one of the nicer neighborhoods in Memphis Metro (as is the Cooper-Young area.) I don’t know if it’s just because the river was high due to all the recent rains or if it’s always like that, but the debris and beach flies made me really hesitant to stick my feet in it. I persevered though and found a spot where I could just get my feet wet. I completely understand why it’s called the Muddy Mississippi! That said, it’s a beautiful area and Mud Island has a Mississippi River museum that I’d love to check out next time we’re in the area.

Human Rights

During our middle weekend in Memphis, we decided to visit Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. Slave Haven was an incredible tour. It was a guided 45 minute-ish tour, then they allowed you to wander around the main floor a bit. It was very focused on the Underground Railroad because this house was one of the safe places. They took us into the tiny cellar where escaped slaves would hide until a boat was available to take them farther north. They talked about the different types of code used that was embedded in song, quilts, and more. And they spoke about things like derogatory art and words that are still used today.

The National Civil Rights Museum was an overwhelming experience. My throat was tight with the effort of holding back tears, and my heart hurt the whole time. It’s difficult even to write this as I’m tearing up again just thinking about it all. Go. Please go. And be prepared for a lot of emotions. I’d swing within seconds from being unbelievably sad to so angry I was whispering swear words over the behavior of bleepity bleep “people”.

The museum was so crowded and so full of information that really staying to read every item in every display wasn’t possible that Sunday. You sort of got moved along with the crowd. I did my best to read or skim everything, but you should go on a weekday morning and expect to spend at least 2-3 hours there. The museum is in what used to be the Lorraine Motel. For those who don’t know, this is where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Yes. This. Very. Balcony. Please, take a moment of silence to honor him and his dream.

We both feel we’re aware people. We read, we listen, we keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open. Yet, we also feel that we learned so much more in these two museums – details and personal stories that we wouldn’t have seen if not for these two places. We appreciate the work put in by the people who started and currently run Slave Haven and the National Civil Rights Museum. We respect the toughness and courageousness of the people (all peoples) who were forced to a new land, disrespected and abused in so many ways, yet fought – and still fight – for their lives.

Our wanderings in Memphis filled bucket list items, educated us, and entertained us. There are so many things we didn’t have time to do or see, yet I left feeling “filled” with Memphis: its music touched my soul and its history touched my heart and made me think. Memphis fed me well.

Thanks for joining us as we live our journey…

~Julie

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Written by Julie Gant

4 Comments

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    • Corey, if you especially like old school blues, you definitely need to spend at least a couple of weeks in Memphis! I wish we could have stayed another couple of weeks just for all the music.

  1. I have visited Memphis and I have to say I did the whole Elvis Pilgrimage to Graceland. I even stayed in the Heartbreak Hotel. What can I say we were newlyweds and it was a fun quirky experience. Loved spending time on Beale Street.

    • I love that you did that – especially on your honeymoon! We had so much to do in Memphis, in and around working, that it just never made it to the top of our list. Maybe next time for us! 🙂

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