Memphis

February 20, 2018

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Tail end of my trip to the Delta was a short visit to Memphis, and the first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum, which incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered while he was there on a visit to support a strike by the Memphis sanitation workers.  I was very pleasantly surprised by the exceptionally high quality of the place:  I had expected a more standard, triumphalist, and celebratory exhibition that focused heavily on MLK, but instead I found a rich, creatively arranged multi-media exhibit that described the huge effort by many actors that made the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  The museum did not shy from presenting information on the divisions that existed in the movement, and MLK, although clearly the great leader the movement needed, was not alone in his work.

Of course, since MLK stayed there, that area of South Memphis was the black side of town in those days.  Subsequently, it seems to have declined quite a bit, and today, in the numbing and depressing development cycle we call gentrification, it is being given new life.  The old buildings have coffee bars, galleries, and not-too-cheap condos, and some new building are plopped into spaces where old ones have been demolished.  The developers, having ignored the area for generations, are swooping in to make their kill as the grand march of capital moves into another “virgin” territory.  But as with the Spanish conquistadors, there were people there already, but now they are being squeezed out.  As it happens, on the drive up to Memphis, we heard this fantastic, but very depressing report on part of how this all happens today.

The pictures below were all taken in South Memphis, along the river, or Main Street.

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Condos, wine bar…gentrification

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Mural recalling the sanitation workers’ march down the street from the Civil Rights Museum

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As in so many cities, highway construction blighted the waterfront.

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The old riverbank in Memphis

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The so-called record flood of 2011 doesn’t seem all that high right here! 🙂

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Beautiful terra cotta work on this structure on Main Street, now largely a pedestrian mall.

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The oldest operating restaurant in Memphis

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An old fashioned storefront, c. 1940 I would guess, now defunct.

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That’s a flood wall!

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Highway 61, Visited

February 19, 2018

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Since I love The Blues, and have always wanted to make a visit to the American South, and since I also find rivers and floods fascinating, it was time to finally make a trip to The Delta of Mississippi.  That’s not the Mississippi River delta, which is south of New Orleans, where the mighty river debouches into the Gulf of Mexico, but the oval-shaped region just south of Memphis, TN, alongside of Arkansas, with the Mississippi River separating them.
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The region is pancake-flat, and is bordered on the east by hills, on the west by the river.  The Mississippi has changed course over and inundated the region for millennia, and it is intensely fertile.  After the American Revolution, it became the site of some scandalous criminal land speculations, e.g. the Yazoo Strip Affair, and after the Civil War, clearing the hardwood forests and converting it to cotton farming proceeded at a rapid clip, with the support of Uncle Sam in the form of massive flood control works to protect the farming operations.  So much for Southern states’ resentment of federal intervention:  as long as the pork rolled in and nobody interfered with their “peculiar” institutions, e.g. slavery, and then Jim Crow, Washington D.C. was fine in their books.  You can read more about the how the river and the people interacted with the land in this interesting treatment.

Furthermore, I don’t just love The Blues:  I am very partial to the old fashioned, traditional, Delta Blues, the acoustic music that travelled north in the Great Migration, with people such as Muddy Waters, where it landed in Chicago and got electrified, eventually winning a huge audience in the UK, whose rock and roll invaders brought it back to us making it wildly popular among white audiences here too, at least for a while.  When The Beatles were interviewed at an airport upon their first arrival in the USA, a reporter asked who were their favorite American musicians, and among those volunteered by Lennon was Muddy Waters, unknown to the reporters.  “You don’t know who your famous people are,” quipped Lennon.

The two pictures below are from Stovall’s Farm, a plantation where McKinley Morganfield lived, worked, and played, before he got the confidence to up and leave for the North, as so many other black people had done.  His cabin stood on this site, but has been moved to a local museum:  ZZ Top (I don’t know their music, but they know their Blues61revisited!) made an electric guitar out of one of its planks, and used it to raise funds for the restoration of the cabin.  The state of Mississippi eventually got on board the Blues Train, and set up a Blues Trail, with historical markers up and down the region, especially along Highway 61, which Dylan “revisited” in his smash hit record.  (Highway 61 figures in quite a number of Blues songs, as it runs the length of the Delta, and beyond.)

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This cabin below is just next to the Muddy Waters site:  it wasn’t his cabin, but it looks as if it could have been!  As my wife remarked, it looks like “it’s right out of central casting!”IMG_0039

We based our visit to the Delta in Clarksdale, where there are lots of places to eat and hear music, great music, and in a relaxed, laid back environment that is wonderful.  We stayed in the very nice Delta Bohemian Guest House, where our comfortable room had a tub, plumbing fixtures, and tiled floor, that thrilled me.  (I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasms.) IMG_0045

Needless to say, it is Mississippi after all, the area is rather economically depressed.  These shots in Shaw, MS, where I stumbled on the Blues Trail marker for Honeyboy Edwards, a favorite of mine, capture the atmosphere nicely.

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Further south is the not particularly interesting town of Greenville, MS, which was the center of a lot of literary activity as well as a devastated area during the momentous flood of 1927, the relief effort for which, incidentally, catapulted Herbert Hoover to the presidency.  The museum about the flood, the greatest natural disaster in US history, I believe, was closed, but I did manage a brief rain soaked stroll along the top of the levee.


Jerry Leiber, R.I.P.

August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber, of the fabulous song writing duo, Leiber and Stoller, died yesterday.  They wrote a huge selection of tunes that became hits and have stayed in the popular imagination through endless covers and recycling in soundtracks, commercials, and ‘classic rock’ playlists.  The most famous was their “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog,”  made a huge hit by Elvis, in an interpretation they reportedly did not like, but originally created for the Blues singer, Big Momma Thornton.

How two Jewish guys, one from New York, one from Los Angeles, got together and learned, loved, and exported to the world the essence of American Black music is one of those mysteries and wonders of American cultural history.   They were funny guys, too.  In a TV documentary series about the writers of the legendary Brill Building, they quipped when asked about their socializing with African-Americans at a time when that was not at all a common thing for white people:

“We didn’t believe in interracial dating:  we only dated black girls.”


Delta Blues

May 7, 2011

Scary times these days along the muddiest of waters, the Mississippi River, as it gets ready to top the historic flood levels of 1927.  The article linked above highlights the fears for the Delta area of the river, which is also the home to the blues, that distinctly American form of popular music developed by Afro-American sharecroppers after the Civil War.  The style migrated north with blacks fleeing Jim Crow and seeking economic opportunity, and it hooked up with electricity in the Chicago Style, of which Muddy Waters is one of the most famous artists.  From there, after WWII, it found its way to the UK and southern, white, urban performers such as Elvis Presley, and thence to rock ‘n’ roll, rock, heavy metal, and beyond, and finally back to roots revival.

The Delta area is not the actual fluvial delta of the Mississippi River, i.e, the place where it discharges into the Gulf of Mexico and creates the bird-foot patters of sediment.  It’s actually upstream where the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers converge, including the point where the state boundaries of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas meet.

For an engineer with an interest in hydraulics and geography, there’s nothing like a good flood, and I follow the news stories on them closely.  Those who don’t have my technical interest might find John McPhee’s chapter on the Mississippi in his book, The Control of Nature, compelling.


Beefheart R.I.P.

December 17, 2010

[I reprise this post from November 30, 2005 to note the passing of the Captain.]

Captain Beefheart – do you know him? I didn’t, until today. I first heard of him when I was in the eighth grade and a bio-lab partner asked me what music I liked. I said something like Jethro Tull most likely, and he said, “I like Captain BEEFHEART!” Whaaa? That was Greg Grunke, a bit of an oddball, though his name is…just his name. He later gave me a yellow calling card, which I probably have still, that says, “Max Ernst is dead, isn’t he?” Now THAT I liked! So, that was thirty-five years ago, and all this time I’ve been wondering who IS this Beefheart fellow. Finally, I got his Trout Mask Replica album off of eBay and started listening to it. I’ve made it through four songs so far, and I can say that it is everything I hoped for – intriguing and weird. Definitely an acquired taste, but so is wine, scotch, and lots of other good things that no one thinks twice about. Why should music be different? And that album cover is one of the best surrealist images ever made, I think. Max Ernst would definitely have approved.

Vliet (aka Beefheart) was friends with Frank Zappa as a high-schooler, how about that? Two of the weirdest souls in “pop” music and they were school chums in Antelope Valley. Take that Greenwich Village, center of the Bohemian Universe!

I just get tired of the same old, same old, and the other day I pulled out my one Frank Zappa record, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which I love. I never got much into Frank, but perhaps now I’ll give him another look. That’s the wonder of recorded music, the Internet, and the public library – there’s a world of sounds, images and words to get lost in forever. Perfect for non-productive parasites like yours truly, who never care to produce anything of value, other than their own persons and their offspring, but who love to consume the culture of others.


Accounting for taste

December 21, 2008

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No accountin’ for taste, they say.  And music, it crosses all the boundaries.  Speaks a “universal language.”

I ain’t black, I ain’t poor, I ain’t religious, and I sure as hell can’t sing or play guitar, but I sure love this record! 

The cover is by Robert Crumb.