The Great Migration (1916-70) may have displaced six million Blacks from the South to the North and West, but there were some Southern areas left unaffected by migration during this period. One was Memphis, Tennessee and its famous Beale Street, where great jazz and blues were developed without much need for migrant musicians. “Unlike its northern counterparts, Beale Street never became a black ghetto,” claims the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. “But it was Beale’s black culture that gave the street its fame, and the street stood as testimony to the decision of black people to strive to achieve the American Dream in their American homeland, the South, rather than to move North.”
Beale Street was created in 1841 and managed to survive the Civil War and the Yellow Fever outbreaks that followed. After 1865, emancipated slaves rushed to Memphis, building a black community alongside the extant white settlement. By the early 1900s Beale was still filled with shops, restaurants, and clubs, but now, many of them were owned by African Americans. Beale Street quickly became the urban center for black nightlife for northern Mississippi, eastern Arkansas and west Tennessee. The setting was complete for creating a unique new sound in music.
In 1909, W.C. Handy wrote the first blues song that created the first uniquely American music style (gospel and country were largely adapted imports from Europe). The song was actually a campaign theme for politician and Memphis boss E. H. Crump called “Boss Crump Blues” that was later published as “Memphis Blues.” The song really caught on quickly in the clubs, partly due to its unique sound, explains historic-Memphis.com. “Because many of the musicians were poor and couldn’t afford traditional instruments, they improvised using household items such as washboards, kazoos, and Jews harps, but the most unique instrument was ‘the jug’.” Blowing into various-sized jugs could create a deep, hollow sound, similar to a bass guitar. Thus the blues sub-genre “jug blues” was created, and jug bands could be heard all over Beale Street in the early 1900s.
What kind of man was Handy? The website No Song Is Safe from Us has an explanation. One late night he happened into a local barber shop and asked the proprietor why he hadn’t closed for the evening: “well, ain’t nobody got killed yet” was the reply. The beginning of the [Beale Street Blues] chorus, though omitted in our day’s recording, sets the scene leading into the “I’d rather be here…” finale: “And the Blind Man on the Corner, who sings these Beale Street Blues.”
Handy was also a great folklorist. His bandmates would ask why he was always lingering on street corners listening to singing beggars. He always had a pencil and a scrap of paper with him, and the foresight to know what should be disseminated rather than lost in the mists of time.
Beale Street’s contribution to new forms of Blues has been immense. “In the 1940s and 1950s Beale Street musicians like B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland blended traditional blues with jazz arrangements to produce the new form of music known as rhythm and blues,” the Encyclopedia continued.
Born and raised in nearby Mississippi, a young singer named Elvis Presley was impressed with the Beale Street blues music. He did a little experimenting of his own, mixing the blues with country music to come up with yet another music form called Rockabilly, which formed the basis for rock and roll.
The essence of Beale Street was captured in a 2018 screen adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” states the opening quotation from Baldwin, citing “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy.” Regina King won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the heart-stopping love story about heroism in a world gone bad. King was cast as Sharon Rivers, the mother of lead character Tish (played by KiKi Layne).
Although Beale Street peaked in musical influence during the Roaring Twenties, it was still going strong until three historical events wounded it deeply: 1) the civil rights movement of the 1960s, 2) the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. nearby and 3) the urban renewal movement. Ironically, the first-listed event undermined the street’s importance as a cultural center by enabling blacks to do business all over the city instead of being confined to the black district. The fear associated with the assassination of King accelerated the street’s decline while urban renewal removed a lot of the old historical buildings to make room for more modern structures. Urban renewal was perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Beale as historical buildings were torn down to make room for modernization, whatever that really means.
Of course, Beale Street lives on as a musical attraction. Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, which brings in tens of thousands of admirers every year, is also in Memphis. It wasn’t accidental that W.C. Handy chose to live and work in Memphis. It’s just that kind of place.
The original Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy