MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE—Blind Mississippi Morris is rocking. The beat that booms from the bass drum behind him jolts his body from left to right, Blind keeping time, back and forth, as if he were a 250-pound, six-foot, denim-clad metronome. Chipper in his chair onstage at the Blues City Café’s Band Box, he’s grinning, ear to ear, the gap where his two front teeth used to be as wide and open as a pair of saloon doors on a Saturday night.
One hundred years of Delta blues unwind inside Blind’s calibrated mind for music, and when he lifts the harp to his lips, he blows the raw stuff of a hard life into trills that dart in and out of the drums and bass and guitar. His harp sounds soar, over chairs and tables and draft beer in plastic cups and waitresses snaking through dancers and the ball-capped heads of patrons, out and into the thrum and heat of another Beale St., Memphis evening.
The open-door bars churn blues and soul, feeding the clamor along the street. Look up and neon throbs: a waving fork at Blues City Café (Put Some South in Your Mouth!), a giant guitar at B.B. King’s Blues Club, a leering, top-hatted skull at Tater Red’s Lucky Mojos and Voodoo Healing. People from around the planet in black leather jackets and khaki shorts and orange head bandanas and polo shirts are here to eat Memphis barbecue, lick their fingers, sip booze and plug into the blues.
I came to this city on a pilgrimage, a long-time guitar player with a short list of dream venues, Memphis crowning the list. As Kathmandu and Everest are for climbers who seek to scrub their inner selves as they ascend in rarified air, so Memphis and Beale St. are for lovers of the blues, who can wade into the fertile lore that lives alongside the Mississippi River and emerge weary, a bit wiser and, in my case, spirited.
Beale St. is blues heaven, squeezed into a glorious, tawdry, two-block stretch of more than 25 clubs and shops. For some, Memphis is about the food, the golden fried catfish and the fall-off-the-bone ribs and the down south turnip greens and the pitcher of Ghost River Golden Ale for cooling down a hot night. I savored every mouthful, while the music spoon-fed my soul.
You want to feel and talk the blues, sit at the feet of the masters, soak in the history of where it started and how it continues today, this is the place. Guys like Blind Mississippi Morris and Earl the Pearl Banks who play at the Blues City Café are the living embodiment of the blues. Blind’s in his 60s and Earl’s in his 80s. They won’t be here forever.
Not that Blind — aka Morris Cummings, 62, sightless since age four, father of 12 children, ex-husband of 13 wives, cousin of Willie Dixon, survivor of two bankruptcies, listed as one of the top 10 harmonica players in the world, known simply as “Blind” and “The Real Deal on Beale” — needs encyclopedic explaining. Why, it’s the blues, son, no need to go on about it, you just gotta listen.
Beale St. Oh lord, the stories it can tell.
“If you weren’t workin’ on the farm, you were workin’ on the river,” said Blind in between sets, conjuring all the Delta bluesmen who’ve come and gone before him. “And when you got off the river, you would stop by all the little juke joints and gamblin’ holes all along there, and you would hear it, the blues, mm-hmm. And it’d make the hair stand right up on your head.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Beale St. was a gateway for African-American culture and commerce. W.C. Handy, now known as the Father of the Blues, roamed as a songwriter and musician. In 1909, he wrote what would become “The Memphis Blues.” The song transmuted the regional styles he’d absorbed during his travels along the Mississippi River into sheet music made available to white audiences. It became the DNA for rock and roll, winding through Elvis and finding its way into the bloodstream of music that pulses daily.
During the early ’70s, in the living room of our Toronto home, amid the Beatles and the Stones, albums by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues legends leaned against the wall. It was my father’s music, not mine, but as I grew, learning new guitar licks, I would return to it. Spinning vinyl became my inner compass and the needle always bent toward the blues.
Grooves in records can summon the past in concentric circles. Live music drops you into the moment like an exclamation point. The history of the blues unfurls with every step along Beale St. Stroll into a club and it comes alive.
Clyde Roulette, who is Blind’s guitar player with roots in Manitoba, has been playing in Memphis for decades. Asked how Beale St. has changed, he said: “This thing is so old … you know those worms in Dune? We’re like that, riding on the back of it. When we’re gone, 50 years from now, it’ll be here, and it’ll still be like it is here tonight.”
I climbed onstage with Blind and his band at the Band Box to play guitar during “The Thrill is Gone,” then did the same with front man extraordinaire Brad Birkedahl for a version of “Big Boss Man,” both men generous and welcoming. The ghosts of greats led me to these nights, a privileged, middle-aged white tourist standing on the shoulders of musical giants.
Looking over the audience to the procession of visitors beyond the bar, I rode the everlasting backbeat, every sound that has ever boomed from Beale St. doorways reverberating in my bones, raising the hair on my head and quickening my blood, ready for the moment when the song would die and I, too, would become one more haunting echo.
When you go:
Get There: Air Canada, United Airlines and American Airlines are among the carriers with flights from Toronto to Memphis, Tenn. Some flights require a transit point, though Air Canada can get you there on a direct flight in under two-and-a-half hours.
Eat here: The Blues City Café on Beale St. (BluesCityCafe.com) is well known for both its music in the Band Box that adjoins its restaurant, and its food, serving Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Dave Chapelle and Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few. The “Best Meal on Beale” Combo Platter ($27 Cdn) is a must with ribs, catfish and more.
Stay here: I stayed at The Guest House at Graceland (GuesthouseGraceland.com), a new, contemporary, 450-room abode that includes a 464-seat theatre for live performances and movies, among many features, as it celebrates everything Elvis. It blew my mind.
Try this: Rock and roll, blues and rockabilly guitarist Brad Birkedahl runs Rockabilly Rides (Rockabillyrides.com), providing a variety of music- and history-themed tours in Memphis that let you ride in style in cool, ’50s period cars while discovering the city.