Is the Secret in the Petri Dish?

If you look hard, you can find culture where you least expect it.

Tine Crenbenc |

I’m a third-generation Memphian, born here some fifty-eight years ago, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what exactly makes this city special. I suspect I’m no wiser than my father, born in this same city in 1912, and no wiser, certainly, than any of my long-time friends and acquaintances, from every part of town. For all of us, Memphis is . . . well, what it is.

When we native Memphians meet outsiders, we always try to camouflage our communal ignorance of our home place by offering up a standard litany of one-liners. Memphis is the blues, or, more correctly, as the CVB likes to say, “the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock and Roll.” We’re Elvis, B.B. King and Three 6 Mafia. We’re FedEx and Auto Zone and barbecue, of course, and, more recently, the Grizzlies. And now more than ever, we’re the River. We’re risk takers. We’re creative. And we’re nice.

Yep, we’re all of those things. We’re dance and film and fashion and folk art and architecture and literature. Fill in the canvas with your own colors. If you know this city, you know the palette is extensive. But, hey, all cities have their arts, their museums, galleries, their unique histories. We have ours. Good, rich stuff. But it always seems a bit too pat. Too easy. And Memphis ain’t about “easy.”

When faced with issues and deadlines, I walk. These days, I walk with a dog. And it was a recent stroll after midnight with Toby that led me to a late-night slice of insight, a small piece of a possible definition of Memphis “culture.”

Perhaps in Memphis, culture is a verb. It’s action. Our culture is the process of growing, like the action of a culture in a petri dish. We culture and propagate the creative instinct, steeped in a broth of muddy old river and deep August humidity, blended with our poverty and sprinkled with our history of yellow fever and Southern hospitality. And like laboratory technicians, our artists, our critics, and our writers struggle to keep it alive. It’s what we do. We keep the creative juices flowing for this funky culture we’re always growing. We walk with it, and keep it alive by so doing.

Not that we’re resistant to change. And we expect failure and disappointment, while hoping for success. But as artists, as creative folk, we know that with creativity comes the need to push ahead, step back, examine, and push again. Repeat process as necessary. We don’t just struggle to create, but we struggle to create something with a Memphis flavor.

I have often said that Memphians can face bad news a bit more stoically than folks in other cities, because bad news here just gives us more grist for our blues-musicians’ mill. There is more than a little power in that ability. As a city, we have overcome and we will overcome. Inside most of our clubs and studios, the hard life is reality. We’d love to have it different, but we take a look at that reality and make something of it.

Poverty isn’t power, but art’s not gonna stop because of it. Craig Brewer, for example, didn’t have the money to shoot a feature film on the most expensive equipment, so he created The Poor & Hungry in digital format in 2000, creating an amazing work of art. Poor & Hungry. That speaks volumes.

Speaking of the beer joint which gave Brewer’s first feature-film success its name: I was having lunch in the P&H not too long ago with a young filmmaker friend, when I caught the dialect of our young waiter. I knew he wasn’t from “around here”; when I asked about his hometown, he told me he was from the suburbs of some since-forgotten city in Ohio.

“So, what brought you to Memphis?” I asked. (That nosiness/friendliness is of course a fundamental part of our culture.)

He grinned. “The music.”

“Ah, so you’re a musician?”

“Kind of, yes. Well, a little. Looking to create a band. But, you know, it’s Memphis. You know. And the people here, well, they’re really friendly.”

Yeah, I know. 

David Tankersley began writing professionally in 1978 with his first piece in City of Memphis magazine. He has worked in publishing, advertising, and corporate communications for over 30 years and now works as a screenwriter with Willy Bearden at Deep Delta Films, in addition to working at Burke’s Book Store.

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