There was a moment at the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual luncheon Wednesday, Dec. 12, when the large crowd at The Peabody hotel got a sense for how much depth the city’s musical heritage has and what a complex story it can be.
Eric Martin takes a photo of artwork by George Hunt, which lines the west wall of the Peabody Place parking garage.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
The moment came during a video about the history of Stax.
Narrated by Stax front office veteran Deanie Parker, with fellow Stax veterans David Porter and Al Bell in the audience, Parker specifically pointed out that the South Memphis record label and studio was “forced into involuntary bankruptcy” by Union Planters National Bank.
The specificity was noticed despite Parker’s even tone in a group that almost certainly included some one-time executives of the former bank. It drew some laughter and scattered applause from the audience.
And it demonstrated how the city’s musical heritage continually reaches into the present.
The corner of Third Street and Gayoso Avenue, just outside the walls of The Peabody, bears a new street sign that marks the first stop on what is planned to be the city’s version of a “Highway 61 Blues Trail.”
The state of Mississippi already has one. Third Street Downtown was once a part of U.S. 61 until some modern-day rerouting. So Third Street became an honorary part of U.S. 61 with City Council and Tennessee General Assembly resolutions that re-establish an honorary link to the highway that figures prominently in the mythology of the blues.
The trail marker with a still developing trail is part of an effort to claim another part of the city’s musical geography.
“Sittin’ out here on Highway 61,” contemporary blues artist Blind Mississippi Morris sang as guitarist Brad Webb played on the corner as dignitaries gathered last month to mark the occasion. “Waitin’ on the Greyhound bus to run.”
The buses that Morris sang about and that Robert Johnson, the most enigmatic of the bluesmen, evoked in his classic tale of musicians selling their souls at the crossroads, still run on Highway 61.
But they don’t run anymore from the old Greyhound bus terminal near where Morris and Webb were entertaining. The terminal closed earlier this year and moved to a new terminal near Memphis International Airport.
As Morris and Webb played, the crowd gathered on the west side of the Peabody Place parking garage was almost certainly unaware the stretch of Gayoso was once home to several brothels.
Today, there are no indications anyone ever lived there. But the blues trail marker comes with some reminders that the art of the blues was practiced nearby.
Ten panels of paintings by Memphis artist George Hunt are part of the western wall of the parking garage. Hunt is best known for the colorful images that are the posters for the Memphis In May Beale Street Music Festival.
“I can’t play an instrument,” Hunt said. “I don’t know a half note from a whole note. But I’ve always loved the music. I hope that more people come and enjoy the music that was given birth here by W.C. Handy.”
The blues, in Hunt’s images, is played inside for the most part – places that don’t exist any longer.
But the faces and their reaction to the painted music are more familiar.
“All you have to do is turn around and look and somebody’s got the blues in this crowd,” Hunt said.
Today the art of the blues is amplified – the better to reach more ears and draw a larger crowd and be heard over modern sounds.
In that way, the blues is still about drawing a crowd on its way to somewhere else. That is something blues players across time could probably understand.
The wail of Morris’ harmonica bounced off concrete walls and sealed windows never meant to open. It bounded to the top of The Peabody hotel and rolled south until it collided with the sounds of the blues bands playing in Handy Park on Beale Street itself.
These days the broad sidewalk by Hunt’s paintings is where tourists taking Peabody Segway tours of the Downtown area get a quick course in how to drive a Segway.
The Memphis blues trail may include the lore of Greyhound buses. But some on the trail will travel by Segway.
It’s not hard to imagine that some future tour of Downtown Memphis might include that fact. There will either be an explanation of what a Segway was or some observation about why the driving tutorial was necessary.