National Civil Rights Museum
After the rip-off and not-very-good-anyway breakfast yesterday in the Peabody I go and find a local store and grab some fruit, yoghurt and juice to take back to my room for breakfast. Much cheaper and ten times nicer! Then it’s out into the bright sunshine. It’s quite a warm day as well.
I hop on a trolley to take me down South Main Street. At the end of its route is Memphis’ oldest cafe, the Arcade Restaurant. This is also famous as the place Elvis used to go to eat. There’s even an “Elvis booth” that apparently was his favourite one to sit in. The place is absolutely packed inside but I pop in a for a quick coffee at the bar counter. Once drunk, I walk back up S Main St for a block or two until I find the National Civil Rights Museum. Behind it is the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. These are part of my non-music activities today. 🙂
The upstairs of the museum is devoted to MLK’s murder. Part of the museum is housed in the rooming house from where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. You can even see the bathroom and window where he shot it from. It’s interesting and well presented, and incredibly detailed. It does however strike me as being a bit of overkill in terms of how much information is shown. And there’s little if anything upstairs about the Civil Rights struggle.
A Missed Opportunity?
Downstairs there is some stuff about that but it seems almost an afterthought after the overload volume of data upstairs. The presentation downstairs is weird as well. There are lists, bullet points, pictures – for instance there is a display with lists of laws passed to rectify matters – but no analysis or commentary to explain anything. It’s kind of like they assume visitors know everything. There’s little about the injustices and wrongs inflicted on African Americans. Nothing about their struggles, the murders, the lynchings, or the abuse.
It’s all very strange and not what I was expecting at all – or, to be frank, what I think it should be. I learnt more about the issues and problems suffered by black people from the time I spent in the Delta than I got from the museum. It is after all called the Civil Rights Museum, but it’s a missed opportunity I think. Many museums catalogue what went on in the past and I thought this one would do the same. Namely to create a historical record of fact about the Civil Rights movement – “so we never forget” – as has often been said about what went on with the Holocaust for example, but the museum does not do that.
There’s the obligatory shop after which I exit and return to the Lorraine Motel, which I passed by to enter the museum. They’re renovating the Motel at present (in 2013). Even so I was able to go up some stairs and walk along on the balcony in front of the bedrooms on the upper floor. Here you can stand on the actual spot on the walkway where MLK was gunned down, and look into his motel room. You can’t go in but the room has been preserved just as it was on the day he died.
I can also therefore look back across to the rooming house and see the line of fire Ray took. I learn from the docent managing access to the balcony that once renovations are complete, access up the steps to the balcony will be stopped. She didn’t know why but that’s the plan apparently at the moment. This seems very strange to me. It was quite emotional to walk on the balcony and witness history so close up, albeit such a tragic event. I think the museum experience overall will be poorer without it. So if you want to walk on the balcony, get there quick!
The Memphis Story of Rock and Soul
After a sandwich for lunch from a grocery store on S Main St I walk back into the centre of downtown. Here I find the Rock’n’Soul Museum for “the complete Memphis music story”. Now this is better. After an introductory film the exhibits are laid out in a linear timeline starting in the Delta of the 1920s. There’s history, background and commentary, and it goes on to run through Sun, Stax and other things Memphis-orientated. An excellent audio guide with headphones guides me round. The displays themselves all have lots of informative, additional content.
It’s all very well done even if, as a music fan, I did know quite a bit of it already. It’s still a worthwhile visit all the same. The shop – I know, what a surprise, there’s a shop – has even more tat than is normal, which is saying something. No purchases were made. Then it’s a couple of blocks walk back to my hotel for a short sit down and rest before I head out again into Beale Street for dinner – and hopefully some more good music.
Blues Hall Juke Joint
I decide to try the Rum Boogie Cafe, which is a bar with a music stage. I have some food sitting at the bar and watch football and baseball on the ubiquitous TVs whilst also listening to some jive-type band called Davina & The Vagabonds. My, they do have pretensions to greatness. They start out with well-known ‘standard’ tunes and it’s OK but then they decide to “do one of own” according to the lovely Davina. Here they lose the plot, going all weird ‘n stuff. Unfortunately this was not a one-off event as it was swiftly followed by more rubbish “of their own”.
However, whilst listening to this musical garbage in my right ear from dearest Davina, a connecting door to the left keeps opening. I keep hearing some ‘proper’ music coming from within. The barman tells me it’s the Blues Hall Juke Joint and it’s part of the same building. Time for a change of scenery and I head on in. There’s a load of blues memorabilia on the walls. Some might even consider it a juke joint as it’s quite small and seems old-ish. In fact I later discover it does characterise itself as the “last real juke joint on the street”.
“I Feel Good” *
Playing tonight is the Dr. Feelgood Potts Band – real R’n’B (proper old-style, not the anodyne Beyonce-like muzak that gets called R’n’B these days) – and they’re bloody good. No, they’re excellent. I sit at the bar downing beers and tapping my feet. It’s marvellous stuff. But then at 11 pm the Blues Hall suffers an influx of loads of ancient Eagles fans dispersing from the FedExForum after watching their heroes on their umpteenth comeback gig.
What the hell do Eagles fans know about R’n’B? Some of them start talking loudly and disruptively. Many heads starting turning from those of us on the bar stools to try and shut these cowboys up. Thankfully most of the old farts leave quickly and the intruders who remain then keep quiet and don’t ruin the excellent vibe and atmosphere Dr Potts has created. It’s a really good night of music and I stay until the band finish just after midnight, and then it’s time for bed.
* I Got You (I Feel Good) by James Brown, as does Dr Potts I trust