Walking Down Beale Street

Today’s audio update: Christian Kallen on the joy of barbecue.

Promising the basics at a Beale Street bar

MEMPHIS, TENN.—For the last two nights, I have been possessed by fits of journalistic responsibility that have required me to attend blues clubs and music clubs of various descriptions along the famed Beale Street here in Memphis, Tenn. I had read that Beale Street’s renovations and additions—a Hard Rock Cafe, for instance—struck some as tacky or somehow insincere. Some said Beale Street was cashing in on its past.

That past involved itinerant blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta, who played on street corners and small clubs. The street was always about music. In its heyday, back in the 1900s and on through the 1940s and ‘50s, Beale Street was a mile-long row of shops and bars, a place of and for African-Americans. As the legendary DJ and performer Rufus Thomas told a white friend once, “If you were black for one Saturday night on Beale Street, never would you want to be white again.”

Although celebrated for its night life, Beale was a center of black business and culture. Aside from the music blaring out of every other building, there were black-owned dry goods shops, beauty parlors, barbershops, insurance companies, pharmacies, and banks. On the second floors, black lawyers and doctors and dentists maintained offices.

Indeed, in 1942, when the white folklorist Alan Lomax visited Beale Street, he was met by a variety of prejudice he had never seen before. Lomax was recording music for the Library of Congress and had spent many enjoyable hours in saloons frequented by blacks. But on Beale Street, in 1942, these establishments did not serve people like Alan Lomax. Signs behind the bar read:

This is a Colored Place
No Whites Served

No one, Lomax observed, seemed particularly sorry, and it was explained to him that the sword of segregation could cut two ways.

The street, however, was not entirely safe, and the murder rate was among the highest in the country. There was a cleanup campaign that dulled the luster of the street. In the 1960s, Beale Street began to die as black-owned businesses moved out of the inner city. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated nearby in 1968, and the subsequent unrest hastened the decline of the street, once a center of black life and culture perhaps more vital than Harlem in New York City.

Left-handed bluesman Eugene Gales bends the strings at B.B.’s

As the bulldozers rolled over the historic district, folks of all ethnic persuasions launched a move to save the street. Urban renewal wasn’t a license to destroy a proud history. So several blocks were saved, and they are surrounded by high-rise office buildings or parking garages. Still, several of the old buildings are pleasingly funky, and some of the newer or remodeled ones are functional and acoustically appealing. B.B. King’s place, established in 1991, serves up good food and quality music. This is a fairly upscale joint, where I saw a band called Eugene Gales and Deep Blues. They were good, playing in a restrained manner that fit the mood of an early Sunday evening crowd. Locals tell me that every once in a while a band will really rip it up at B.B.’s.

There were other places, like the Handy Club, where there was no cover charge and you tossed money in a plastic washtub if you liked the band, which was called Big Jerry, featuring singer/drummer Big Jerry, who played hard blues and had to weigh in excess of 300 pounds.

Security was evident along the street. Mean and lowdown as some of the music was—and should have been—there was no sense of danger. You could hear soul and rock coming out of the bars, and a few steps later you could hear blues and country. It was a good place to listen to just about any kind of music you liked. People crowded the sidewalks in their diversity. There were folks of all races strolling along, stopping now and again to listen to the music emanating from one or another of the clubs. Beale wasn’t a black street anymore. It wasn’t a white street. It was an American street, playing American music, and somehow that thought made me feel proud.