Beale Street Blues
CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 12: Memphis, TN
With a temperature in the mid-40s and clear skies, our day started out with perfect letterboxing conditions. Finding the first of many letterboxes by a local boxer called DS, our first stop was at the cemetery where Elvis was initially buried. That was before the King’s remains were moved to Graceland. Elvis has left the cemetery.
|Cave of Macpelah sculpture, Memorial Park|
Pushing out to the urban fringe, we decided to go search for a letterbox in Eidolon’s ‘Alaska or Bust’ series. He tries to find interesting locations for his letterboxes, and he hit a home run with this one. Located within Memorial Park Cemetery, the box was hidden near the Crystal Shrine Grotto.
|Faux wood sculptures by Dionicio Rodriguez (including the large hollow "tree")|
In the mid-1930s, self-trained Mexican sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez was hired to create some artistic works to beautify the cemetery. Rodriguez was an appealing choice in the struggling economic climate because he had mastered the art of sculpting with cement to imitate wood and stone. After completing some smaller works, the sculptor convinced cemetery owners to allow him to hand-build a 60-ft deep cave into a hillside at the center of the cemetery.
|Crystal Shrine man made cavern|
With his mastery of cement, this became the Crystal Shrine Grotto, a cavern lined with faux stalagmites, stalactites, and five tons of quartz crystal. Scenes within depict the life story of Christ. Around the exterior of the grotto are other examples of Rodriguez’s sleight of hand, including a massive hollow “tree” and a “wooden” bridge.
Along the route to our next letterbox, we chanced upon a Whole Foods store and stopped for lunch from their hot food bar—spinach and feta quiche, horseradish mashed potatoes, grilled broccoli, sautéed green beans, and a vegan crispy waffle with fresh berries for dessert. The food was so healthy and delicious, we bought take-out to eat later for dinner.
|Wholly delicious Whole Foods|
As we drove toward Elmwood Cemetery to find the next letterbox, we fell in behind a red Pacifica with Florida license plates as it was stopped at a red light. We were stunned to see a little girl about six years old with her head and shoulders thrust outside the front passenger window. Our confidence that the driver would corral the child and get her properly secured before driving away was misplaced.
|On what planet is this safe at 40 mph?|
The light turned green, and off the car sped with the child still hanging out the window. Hardly able to believe what we were watching, we followed, wishing for law enforcement to magically appear. They did not. As we tailed the car through many blocks in busy traffic, the child remained in the same position, at times leaning even further out, until the car stopped in front of a house on a residential street.
We pulled up beside the car and, when the driver lowered her window, expressed our grave concern for the safety of the child. The woman, who looked too old to be the girl’s mother, scoffed at our worriment, gesturing toward the child and insisting she was fine. When we pointed out the many illegal aspects as well as the danger in what she had permitted, she retorted that she was going back to Florida anyway and was just dropping the child off at her cousin’s house as a favor.
The incident over and the child safely out of the irresponsible woman’s hands, we continued to Elmwood Cemetery. Opened in 1852 as one of the first rural garden cemeteries in the South, Elmwood is the oldest active cemetery in Memphis, the final resting place of city mayors, Civil War generals, and former Tennessee governors, among many others. Amidst tulips, redwoods, and other colorful blooms painting the perfect picture of spring, we found an award-winning letterbox commemorating Tennesseans who died at the Alamo.
Continuing our search, we visited three parks along the Mississippi River—Vance Park, Mississippi River Greenway on Mud Island, and Riverside Park, which houses the Tennessee Welcome Center and the very clever ‘Passport to Memphis’ letterbox.
By late afternoon, we had found seven outstanding letterboxes and returned to the hotel to eat our take-out meal before walking over to Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street for a special Memphis Blues Society blues jam and fundraiser to benefit Dennis Falanga, the drummer in Earl “The Pearl” Banks’ band, who is undergoing some medical problems.
|Rum Boogie guitars|
Founded in 1985, Rum Boogie Café serves up food, drink and blues seven days a week. ‘Eat. Drink. Boogie. Repeat’ is the motto of this Beale Street institution. Hanging from the ceiling is an eclectic collection of more than 350 autographed guitars from musicians of every stripe—Gregg Allman to Ike Turner, Lou Rawls to Elvis. Other music memorabilia and dollar bills line the walls and ceiling. Graffiti is well entrenched, though it lacks Ground Zero’s comprehensive coverage. Seen in the women’s restroom: “Don’t sweat the petty stuff. Pet the sweaty stuff.”
After our 6:30 arrival, we were treated to five hours of outstanding blues music by some of Memphis’ best professionals who came out to support their ailing friend. In lieu of a cover charge, those in attendance were asked to make a $10 donation, and most seemed to do so. It was a small price to pay for the entertainment being served up. Every half hour a new band took to the stage. During the course of the night, we heard Bobby Lawson, Brandon Santini, Brad Webb and Friends, Robert Cole Tooms and the Wompus Cats, Earl “The Pearl” and the People of the Blues, the Blues Healers, and Eric Hughes.
|Brad Webb and Friends|
As we had observed before, musicians—and even instruments—seem to be interchangeable from one band to another. The blues is such a riff-oriented style of music, its practitioners seem to just show up, plug in and play. Yet somehow they manage to sound as if they have practiced together for years. The music was very good and attracted a sizable crowd, adding up to a successful fund raiser. Eat. Drink. Boogie. Repeat.
Tomorrow we'll spend one more day in Memphis so we can catch a performance by Robert "Dr. Feelgood" Potts at the Blues Hall Juke Joint. But for now, here's a little sample of music from tonight's jam.