MEMPHIS — If your travels take you where Tennessee meets the Mississippi River, visit this city’s Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. It’s more than a tourist attraction. The electric guitars on view don’t just cheer up chicken wings, a la the Hard Rock Cafe. Just south of world-famous Beale Street, the museum houses “Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads,” the Smithsonian Institution’s largest, permanent exhibition outside Washington, D.C.
In joyous tones, this museum makes a serious and overlooked point: rock ‘n’ roll, and later soul music, peacefully fused what white and black Americans could offer each other. More importantly, the wild popularity of these art forms among young blacks and whites in the 1950s and 1960s sped the demise of Jim Crow.
Obviously, Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (assassinated in 1968 just four blocks from where the museum stands) led the struggle for civil rights. But Ike Turner, B. B. King, and Elvis Presley played their parts, too.
Why Memphis? This city is the hub of a wheel whose spokes stretch into eastern Tennessee and nearby Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. As such, it attracted many of the 7.6 million southerners who traded the countryside for cities between 1935 and 1960.
Blacks by the thousands came here from the Mississippi Delta after the tractor and other advancements eliminated old-fashioned, labor-intensive, donkey-driven plow farming. They also were robbed by New Deal agricultural programs that allowed large landlords to collect crop support payments meant for poor sharecroppers, then simply not deliver them. On audio tour headsets, museum guests can hear a Carson Robinson song on Champion Electrograph Records that laments these dire straits: “‘Leven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat.”
While the museum displays an actual pair of screen doors labeled “White Only” and “Colored Only,” Memphis’s race relations were less tense than elsewhere in the south. An 1878 yellow fever epidemic killed some 5,000 of the city’s 7,500 residents and vacated it for 14 years. The blacks and whites who later rebuilt a dead city were “urban pioneers” whose civic spirit lacked the venom of many of the places they left.
Blacks brought gospel and blues from deeper in the south. In fact, the route from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis is called the “Blues Highway.” The museum sits on Route 61, immortalized by Bob Dylan’s album, Highway 61 Revisited. Meanwhile, whites who left farms during the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath brought country and bluegrass music to Memphis.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Memphis’s somewhat more relaxed racial policies increasingly allowed white and black musicians and audiences to mingle in nightclubs. Local white-owned radio stations like WDIA let black DJs like Rufus Thomas and a young ex-tractor driver named B. B. King jointly showcase white and black music. These musical tributaries soon formed a mighty river called rock’ n’ roll. It flowed lightly at first through folks like Ike Turner (whose 1951 “Rocket 88″ many consider the first rock tune), then rushed along with the release of Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right Mama” in 1954. Soul music eventually cascaded out of Memphis, too, carrying Al Green, Otis Redding, and the Staple Singers to American listeners.
As black and white teens began to listen and dance publicly to the same black and white performers, racism’s levees broke — slowly at first, then all of a sudden in the 1960s.
The museum’s treasures include the bulky, gray console on which Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips captured the work of Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and others. The first Gibson hollow-body guitar B. B. King dubbed Lucille is here, complete with wood grains peeking through cracked red varnish. Look for the battered upright piano on which Pinetop Perkins taught Ike Turner to play. Its stained keys are worse for the wear, and more crooked than a hillbilly’s teeth.
The Smithsonian has taken heat in recent years for presenting politically correct shows that portray America as the chief tormentor of a variety of multicultural victim groups. But with the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, it deserves credit for explaining how artists and entrepreneurs in search of beauty and profits helped bridge black and white Americans — and set the whole thing to music.