Of Music, Kings and Cotton: Memphis Rocks History

By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Memphis might well be what one would consider a master's class in history. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, from the birth of the blues and rock to the death of the King, the city's past is full of lore and legend, tragedy and triumph.

Much of the city's history happened along the banks of the Mississippi River; the Big Muddy was a trading route, the route to freedom, to enslavement, and to prosperity, depending on which century or decade one examines. Much of this history is told downtown, at the Mud Island complex, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the museum at the Cotton Exchange. Beale Street was once the epicenter of African American business in Memphis, and soon became the focal point for the blues - which influenced other hometown musicians, most notably Elvis Presley. His story, and that of others influenced by the blues, is told at Graceland, Stax and Sun Studio. And great stories of prosperity are found in some of the city's grandest old homes - the Woodruff-Fontaine House and the Pink Palace.

Today's Memphis has been shaped greatly by its past - and starting a tour of the city with a visit to its historic sites is the best way to get a feel for the birthplace of the blues and rock - and the city that's still the King of Cotton.

10. Beale Street Historic District
Photo courtesy of Lisa Buser Photography

Once the center of black-owned businesses and nightclubs, Beale became the home of the blues at the turn of the 20th century - a waypoint along the trail from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. W.C. Handy lived - and performed - here, and anyone who was anyone on the blues scene has performed in the clubs here, from Blind Mississippi Morris to B.B. King to Robert Johnson. Today, the clubs and restaurants on Beale proper still move to the beat of the blues. The FedEx Forum - home to the NBA's Grizzlies - sits just off Beale, and a variety of hotels, museums and eateries are within a short walk from the famous street. Blues fans can pay homage to W.C. Handy at the home and museum at the east end of the street, or visit the Center for Southern Folklore to explore storytelling and folk art in the South. Also nearby is the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and Gibson Guitar Factory. In Handy Park, a small stage is home to lunchtime and weekend concerts including some unscheduled jam sessions. For the best blues music, try B.B. King's, Rum Boogie or Alfred's.

9. Pink Palace Museum
Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

Occupying a pink marble mansion that was originally the home Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggle grocery store chain, the Pink Palace is a mix of museum and historic site. The museum boasts a fascinating collection Saunders' own art and artifacts, as well as exhibits with a local theme. Offerings include a Civil War display, an exhibit on Memphis history, a mechanized, miniature circus, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, multiple stores and a snack bar. There's even an exhibit of the old grocery store for kids to play in. The museum also features a science/natural history exhibit on the first level that's a bit random, old-school-ish in its exhibits, but completely charming.

8. Chucalissa Archaeological Museum

Chucalissa is Choctaw for "abandoned house," and at this museum visitors can see reconstructed houses dating from the 15th century AD - but the real attraction is the live archeological site, used as a lab for training archaeologists as well as a museum to educate about the early lives of Native Americans. A reconstructed village and other historic artifacts create a tableau for visitors. The museum itself was founded in the late 1950s following a discovery of a Mississippian (AD 1000 - 1500) mound complex; it explores the prehistory of the Mid-South, contemporary Southeastern Native Americans, and the African American cultural heritage of the Chucalissa site.

7. Graceland
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Jones

Graceland is the second most visited historic home in the United States, hosting more than 600,000 visitors who come to pay homage to the King. How long one spends at Graceland really depends on one's level of interest in Elvis – you can make a quick tour of the mansion and be out in an hour, or spend the day at all the associated exhibits across from the estate. For those truly committed, special exhibits change frequently. The mansion itself is really just a large family home, forever stuck in the design decade of the 70's. Elvis has a very deep interest in interior design, so he played a major role in choosing d�cor for the home, especially the basement. The infamous Jungle Room, where Elvis and his band actually recorded an album, is over-the-top tropical, featuring leopard spots, tropically-themed d�cor and green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling.Guests are never allowed to roam upstairs to view the Presley family's private quarters. Elvis' grave site in the Meditation Garden is part of the mansion tour.

6. Sun Studio
Photo courtesy of Ethan.K

Sun Studio is a tiny spot - but really, really big events in the history of music happened here. The most famous of all, of course, was Elvis Presley recording 'That's Alright, Mama' in 1954; within a year, he was a superstar and the Sun label was known throughout the world. Those whose names would become synonymous with rock, country and even the blues recorded at Sun including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. The famous Sun facade is one of the most photographed sites in Memphis. A 1950s-style diner / gift shop offers up snacks a selection of music souvenirs.

5. Cotton Museum
Photo courtesy of Memphis Cotton Museum

Memphis is still the largest spot cotton market in the world - although you will no longer find trucks filled with the just-harvested fluffy white bolls in downtown Memphis any longer. (Remember Tom Cruise jumping onto just such a truck in the movie 'The Firm?') The Cotton Exchange Building was home base for cotton trading, the surrounding buildings and alleys dedicated to cotton warehousing and transportation. The museum, housed on the first floor of the Exchange, recounts the fascinating history of cotton in Memphis, with excellent exhibits showing how trading was conducted, how cotton is graded, and films detailing the crop's history throughout the South.

4. Mud Island River Park & Mississippi River Museum
Photo courtesy of Mud Island River Park

Mud Island is reached by an aerial tram (you may remember it from the Tom Cruise movie, The Firm) and features a to-scale model of the Mississippit River that one can walk along, noting the changing conditions of the river. The Mississippi River Museum explores the 10,000-year history of the Mississippi, noting how it developed and what the areas around it have drawn from the river. The Belle of the Bluffs, the reconstructed front half of an 1870s steamboat, complete with cotton bales stacked on the lower deck and water lapping at the hull. The Memphis Blues exhibit highlights the music of the Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, early rock 'n roll, and Elvis. Mud Island's pay-one-price package includes entry to the museum, a round-trip monorail ride, and a guided tour of the five-block scale model of the Mississippi.

3. National Civil Rights Museum

One of the most emotionally moving museums in America, the National Civil Rights Museum chronicles the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike – right in the very building where King was standing when gunned down. Exhibits in the Lorraine Motel, where King and his entourage were staying, and the boarding house across the street – where gunman James Earl Ray camped out – tell the history of the civil rights movement, leading up to the assassination of King and the hunt for his killer. In addition, the pioneers of civil rights are profiled in a special exhibit dedicated to those the museum recognizes in its annual human rights awards.

2. Magevney House
Photo courtesy of Thomas R Machnitzki

Built in 1833, the Magevney home is one of the city's oldest homes, and the only structure still standing from Memphis' pioneering days. It was bought in 1827 by Irish immigrant Eugene Magevney In the shadow of the grand St. Peter's Catholic Church next door, and full of authentic furnishings from the mid-1800s, this is a great place to see what life was like for the middle class during the 19th century. The home was the site of numerous firsts, including the first school in the city and the area's first Catholic mass.

1. Victorian Village
Photo courtesy of Victorian Village

Victorian Village was the city's original affluent neighborhood, and just a few of its original Victorian homes remain today. Near Main Street, this quiet residential area offers glimpses into lovely homes with exquisite French Second Empire and Italianate Victorian architecture. The village houses several historic residences including the Mageveny House, the Woodruff Fontaine House and the Mallory Neely Home. In November 2012, the Mallory-Neely home reopened for tours; many are hoping that this renovation will be the beginning of many throughout the area. Currently, that home and the Mageveny home are open for tours; a self-guided walking tour and seasonal events are also offered. The nearby Mollie Fontaine house is now a hip bar that's also worth a visit.