The music called blues was born in this southern American city. Rock and roll music also began here. This month, the city is celebrating its musical traditions. I’m Sarah Long.
And I’m Steve Ember. The city of Memphis, Tennessee is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
((CUT ONE: "Memphis Blues"))
Memphis is the largest city in the southern state of Tennessee. The Mississippi River flows along the west side of the city. Memphis is the chief center of business, industry and transportation in Tennessee. Six-hundred-fifty-thousand people live in the city. More than one-million people live in the area.
Memphis is famous as the birthplace of two major kinds of American music – the blues and rock and roll. It also is well known for soul music.
Memphis, Tennessee began as a settlement in Eighteen-Nineteen. Three men -- John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson – started it. Andrew Jackson would later become president of the United States. They built the settlement where the Wolf River flowed into the Mississippi River.
Mister Jackson named it after the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, which was also built along a famous river, the Nile.
Memphis became an important city when a railroad bridge was completed across the Mississippi River in Eighteen-Ninety-Two. The bridge increased trade between the east and the southwestern United States. By Nineteen-Hundred, Memphis was the world’s largest market for cotton and wood products.
Like many other American cities, Memphis has had racial problems. About forty-eight percent of the city’s population is African American. In Nineteen-Sixty-Eight, city workers who collect waste went on strike. Most of the workers were black. The famous civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior went to Memphis to support the workers. On April Fourth, Reverend King was murdered in Memphis by James Earl Ray.
After Mister King’s death, the city worked to improve living conditions for black people. In Nineteen-Ninety-One, voters elected W-E Herenton the city’s first black mayor. That same year, Memphis opened the National Civil Rights Museum. It was built next to the place where Martin Luther King was killed. Many people visit the museum to learn about the history of the American civil rights movement.
The center of Memphis extends for almost two-and-one-half kilometers along the Mississippi River. One of the most famous streets in America – Beale Street – is in the southern part of the city.
Composer W-C Handy worked there as a musician in the early Nineteen-Hundreds. Handy was known as the “Father of the Blues.” In Nineteen-Sixteen, he wrote a song about the city’s famous street. Here is Louis Armstrong singing “Beale Street Blues.”
((CUT TWO: "Beale Street Blues"))
Many visitors go to Beale Street at night to hear blues music performed. The street has become a major music center in Memphis. In Nineteen-Ninety-One, the famous guitar player B-B King opened his own Blues Club on Beale Street. When he is in Memphis, B-B King still performs with his guitar Lucille at his Beale Street Blues Club. In fact, he performed there last month. Here he performs the song “Caldonia.”
((CUT THREE: "Caldonia"))
Blues was not the only music born in Memphis. Many experts say that rock and roll music began in the city. Sam Phillips was a white record producer there in the Nineteen-Fifties. He produced records by local black musicians at his recording company, Sun Studio. He also produced early recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. One day, an eighteen-year-old truck driver came to his studio to record a song to give to his mother. The young man was Elvis Presley.
Sam Phillips produced Presley’s first real record in Nineteen-Fifty-Four. It was called “That’s All Right.” Many experts consider it to be the first recorded rock and roll song.
((CUT FOUR: "That's All Right"))
Today, people from across the United States and around the world visit Memphis. Tourism has become a major industry. The most popular place to visit in Memphis is Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.
Presley lived there for twenty years until his death on August sixteenth, Nineteen-Seventy-Seven. He is buried on the grounds of Graceland, along with his parents. As many as seven-hundred-thousand people visit Graceland every year.
There are other interesting places to visit in Memphis. The Smithsonian Institution opened the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum two years ago. The museum explores the music and culture of the city. It shows how blues, country, and soul music came together in Memphis. It is the Smithsonian’s first permanent exhibition outside Washington, D-C and New York City.
There is a large and beautiful hotel in Memphis, called the Peabody. It was built in Eighteen-Sixty-Nine. Many famous people have stayed at the Peabody. But it is best known for some birds that live in a special place on top of the hotel – the Peabody Marching Ducks. Every morning, the four ducks ride in an elevator down to the first floor. They march across the main room of the hotel to a small pool of water where they spend the day. Every afternoon, they leave their pool and march back across the room. They ride the elevator back up to their home. Two times a day, hundreds of people watch the Peabody Marching Ducks.
((MUSIC BRIDGE: MEMPHIS BLUES))
Many people are visiting Memphis to take part in special events held each year at this time. This celebration is called “Memphis in May International Festival.” Each year, Memphis honors a different country during International Week, which is being held this week. The city is honoring Argentina this year with a celebration of its customs and culture. There will be tango dancing, Argentine food and artwork.
“The Memphis in May International Festival” also celebrates the traditions of the city. Music, of course, is one tradition. Another is food. Traditional Memphis food includes barbecued pork that is cooked outdoors over a fire. Other traditional foods are fried chicken, catfish, fried green tomatoes and pecan pie. Visitors can enjoy these foods at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Great Southern Food Festival.
The Beale Street Music Festival was held last weekend outdoors in a park. It is one of the largest music festivals in the country. More than sixty bands performed.
Later this month, the W-C Handy Awards for blues performances will be presented. Nominees this year include B-B King, Ike Turner and Buddy Guy.
A song called “Memphis Blues” is often played in the city. W-C Handy wrote it ninety years ago. We leave you with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra performing that song, honoring Memphis and its music.
((MUSIC: "Memphis Blues"))
This program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I’m Sarah Long.
And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.