The Beat Starts in Memphis

Sharecroppers in Mississippi, both black and white, brought their music to Memphis and invented rock 'n' roll.
Wanda Butler

I've never danced through a museum before.

But from the moment I walked into the Rock 'n' Soul Museum in Memphis, my eyes and ears filled with the sights and sounds that have made this river city famous. It made boogying an absolute necessity.

The first permanent Smithsonian partnership outside of Washington, D.C., the exhibit begins with a 12-minute movie that sets the scene, explaining why and how Memphis became the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. I learned how sharecroppers in Mississippi--both black and white--came searching for a better life in Memphis. With them they brought hopes, dreams, and the blues and gospel born in the fields and church.

In the movie I listened to such music notables as Carl Perkins and Sam and Dave talk about their beginnings. "I remember hearing the music sung in the fields," says Carl Perkins. "Music flooded my soul." And the flood washed through Memphis, knocking down walls of segregation, building bridges with guitars and pianos.

After the movie, I donned a headset and turned on a CD player, and that's when the toes started tapping in earnest. Each display is numbered and corresponds to numbers punched into the CD player. So as I studied displays of bluesman Robert Johnson, I heard his voice, his music. I put in another selection and heard snippets of Memphis radio shows as they played some of the earliest rock 'n' roll tunes, such as "Street Car Blues" and "Memphis Flu."

Still humming, I wandered through Elvis memorabilia--including a jumpsuit from 1971 and the 1953 recording equipment from Sun Record Company that recorded Elvis's first song, "That's All Right."

Other exhibits delve into the Civil Rights Movement and the cultural preservation of the deep well of music that sprang up in Memphis.

The gift shop got me good too. Books on the musicians, on rock 'n' roll, and on Memphis keep company with CDs of the artists featured in the museum. I had to have more. I bought CDs by Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and the latest from B.B. King.

The beat goes on in Memphis. Seeing this museum should be a requirement for everyone who comes to the city. I now feel ready to see Graceland, visit Sun Studio, and lose myself in the dancing beat of Beale Street.

Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum: 145 Lt. George W. Lee Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; (901) 543-0800 or www.memphisrocknsoul.org.

This article is from the September 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.