Singing the Blues

For too long, Memphis hasn’t taken full advantage of its musical heritage. That’s about to change.



Albert King

Jonathan Postal

Memphis is justifiably proud of being the birthplace of America’s greatest music, but musicians and music organizations must often feel that they have grounds to sue for non-support.

That’s never truer than when it comes to the blues, the seminal Southern art form and the building block for Memphis’ greatest export: music. Although “home of the blues” is the first half of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau’s marketing hook (followed by “birthplace of rock-and-roll”), Memphis has done little over the years to pay tribute to the way blues music shaped our most historic street, Beale, and defined the dichotomy — “blues and Bibles” and “rock-and-roll and religion” — that is at the heart of who we are.

Memphis’ most famous music was created by outsiders, and no one was more on the outside than African-American performers of “the devil’s music.” Today, it’s hard to find blues being played in Memphis, which means that many blues fans from around the world fly here and then end up renting a car to head to the Delta, where the blues can still be heard and its origins felt.

While Chicago and St. Louis have pushed their narratives as blues cities, the Blues Foundation, headquartered in Memphis with more than 175 blues organizations, has regularly been overlooked. For years, the Foundation — responsible for the biggest events in the world of blues, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Blues Music Awards, and the International Blues Challenge — has been sequestered in downtown Memphis in leased, nondescript space visited regularly by blues fans who left disappointed in their search for the authentic Memphis blues experience.

That’s all changing, and because of it, Memphis has a chance to prove that the thrill isn’t gone when it comes to the blues. The Blues Foundation has moved after 30 years to its own permanent home at 421 South Main where it became a neighbor to the Folk Alliance International, Memphis Music Foundation, the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and WEVL-FM.

It comes at a good time for the South Main Arts District. Many of the nonprofit groups there have only a handful of employees, so few people are on the street unless a special event is under way. As a result, the hope is that the new Blues Foundation headquarters will bring more people to the district and put more money into the cash registers of its businesses.

The Blues Foundation’s lure is intended to be its new Blues Hall of Fame, which will showcase memorabilia and artifacts that were spilling out of the Foundation’s closets as well as new multimedia exhibits about blues legends and current blues greats.

Mythology that has grown up around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame suggests a down-to-the-wire competition before Cleveland was selected a nose ahead of Memphis. Detroit, Cincinnati, and New York City were also in the mix, and it was clear from the beginning that the project would go to the city willing to pay the most to hire a “starchitect” and build a monumental building.

But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s soaring architecture promises more than its exhibits can deliver and, unsurprisingly for these kinds of magic bullet projects, attendance never measured up to projections and layoffs came shortly after the building opened.

Rather than one huge temple to music, Memphis has done something more in keeping with its vibe. In addition to Graceland, it has smaller, more intimate music attractions that are as authentic and intimate as the music it honors: Sun Studio, where gifted tour guides make a couple of rooms come alive; Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where the music is the star; the Rock ’N’ Soul Museum, where a big impact is delivered in a small space.

The Blues Hall of Fame continues in this vein. To build out the design plans, the Blues Foundation needs about $3 million, a fraction of what some other cities, including Indianola, Mississippi, are investing in their blues heritage. Blues Foundation Executive Director Jay Sieleman says the blues survive because they have an “authenticity that survives and defies any fad or fashion.” That durability — of the music and its performers — is also what the Blues Hall of Fame intends to capture.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who has signed on as a “blues ambassador,” says it’s hard for people to get the blues in Memphis any more, but at least they can still hear it and learn about it at the new, improved Blues Foundation. 

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