“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou
OK, I admit it, I (Carol) always wanted to go to Graceland. I also admit that this was especially true after hearing Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. Sure, I’m an Elvis fan, but not THAT kind of fan. I was born slightly too late for that and I more appreciate what he made possible, musically, what came after. I don’t drool and fall all over myself, or scream, truly. But it just always seemed like a thing to do, a thing someone (of my generation, at least) should do. And frankly, though I’m glad I went, the whole experience left me with more questions than answers. Despite turning the whole thing into a kind of Disneyland, it seems those who knew Elvis personally want the world to know (and the world wants to believe) that he was a “regular guy”, someone who came from common stock and identified with the common man, who was approachable and fun. Yet it’s hard to jibe that with the massive car collection and, not so much the fact that he lived in a mansion, but that he constantly remodeled and refurnished it, that he NEVER came downstairs until he was completely “media-ready”, nor allowed anyone else upstairs, and that he never even wanted to see Priscilla without make-up or getting dressed: “He wanted to see the result of me getting dressed”. Still, it was interesting just being there, walking through the halls, seeing the iconic 70’s kitchen, now outdated and frozen in time without further remodeling. It was fun wondering what it would be like to have come from poverty into fame and wealth, what special pressures and challenges that carries. And were his parents kind of running the show all along, did they pressure him to be who/how he was in the world? Or were they just his greatest supporters? As a parent, I know it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. I did really enjoy the “tribute museum” at the Disneyland-like extension across the street, where other musicians talked about the influence Elvis had on their music. That was very interesting and inspiring – and sometimes quite surprising. Oh, and I loved the Peanut Butter and banana sandwich fried in bacon grease – yum!
And Memphis is so wonderful for things other than Graceland. I heard another tourist say that once you go to Graceland, there is nothing else to see in Memphis, that it’s not a “beautiful city” like Nashville. But if Graceland had been the only place we saw in Memphis, we would have missed a lot. Three other highlights: Beale Street! I just don’t think there is anything like this in Oakland or San Francisco, and if there is, someone should have turned me on to it long ago. Music is such an inherent part of Memphis culture and nowhere is this more on display than on Beale Street. In a short 2 block area, there must have been more than 20 great live bands playing – outside, in clubs, in little bars, in restaurants, playing for tips. We walked around, unabashedly tourists but with hearts wide open, taking pictures and listening to great music. I didn’t feel that kind of open-heartedness at Graceland.
The National Civil Rights Museum! Located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed, it is a rich tribute to the history of African American people and the civil rights movement in this country. Beginning with a heart-wrenching history of the slave trade and culminating with a view of the room where MLK stayed on the day of his death (and many times before – the Lorraine was the only motel in Memphis that would accept African American guests), the museum captures the shame of how we in this country treat people of color, particularly Black people. And it also captures the power of what it means to stand together and stand up to power, both the devastation and the triumph. It was very, very moving, particularly in light of recent events. I know this “era” feels like nothing new for African Americans, but to reverse what little progress has been made through folks laying their lives down just makes me ill.
The Stax Museum of the Blues! We are so glad we caught this gem on our way out of town. Located in an old movie theater in a working-class neighborhood, this museum stands on the site of the Stax recording studio. It chronicles the history of Black and White owners, managers, and musicians who shared this creative space, played music together, recorded together and got discovered together and is a very inspiring window into a special time and place. Ironically, it was the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. that heralded its demise, as the experience of that tragedy and their reaction to it were so monumentally different for White people than for Black people.
Like any place, Memphis is so much more than what people see if they don’t look deeply enough. Having just scratched the surface, having just touched down briefly as tourists, we came away with a deep appreciation of the history and people that make this place so very special! (oh, and did I mention the barbecue?!!!! Yummmmmm!!! Another benefit of a willingness to drop in where tourists “don’t go” (some others did come in and turned right around while we were there))
Nashville is a beautiful city (as the other tourist promised while dissing Memphis), also with a rich history and with a deep affinity for music (not just country music, either!). There are SO many recording studios on Music Row, and they all have congratulatory banners in front for artists who have recorded hit singles and albums or achieved awards. But the really fun part of town is Broadway, a longer, even more lively, version of Memphis’ Beale street, where it seems that every storefront either has live music or sells boots. We should note that we didn’t see Nashvilleians wearing boots and cowboy hats (not to say they don’t, we just didn’t see it), but they sure must sell a lot of them to the tourists! While everything else closes at 6, the bars and boot shops stay open late into the night! We heard wonderful music night after night (well we were only there two nights, but we took advantage of as much live music as we could take in all the same). SUPER FUN! We also saw the outside of the Grand Ole Opry, took a LONG and misguided city bus ride out to the University and back (just because a shuttle is free, doesn’t mean it is going where you want to go), and visited a beautiful park with a wall that stretched at least ¾ of a mile and carried all of Nashville history from prehistoric times to the present. The part of the wall depicting the Civil War was disjointed and broken, an interesting presentation. Nearby is a market hall where we got Bi Bim Bop (delicious and a welcome infusion of vegetables after too much Southern Comfort Food), and a nice wooden teething ring for Maya, which has apparently become a favorite, and delicious ice cream.
“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain