Yes, Nashville may bill itself as “Music City” and Austin claims to be America’s “Live Music Capital,” but if there is one city in the United States that has truly given birth to the greatest variety of music genre in the nation, that city has to be Memphis, Tennessee, which this author prefers to nickname as “the Cradle of America Music.”
Some might argue that New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, or Los Angeles deserve greater recognition. While they all play an important role and have contributed greatly to music in America, the diversity, impacts, and worldwide popularity of the music that germinated out of “the Bluff City” and its environs cannot be dismissed. These include:
- The Blues – including Memphis Blues, Delta Blues, Hill Country Blues, and Jug Band Blues
- Soul (Rhythm & Blues)
- Rock ‘n Roll
Furthermore, the city has nurtured rich aspects of Gospel, Jazz, and Country that also waft up and down its historic streets.
The fact that Memphis plays such a crucial role in the American music scene has much to do with the city’s geography. Located near the heart of the country, Memphis benefits from being along or near key historic and modern transportation corridors running both north and south and east and west. North-South corridors like the mighty Mississippi River, the once famous Illinois Central Railroad, iconic U.S. Highway 61 (America’s Music Highway or The Blues Highway), U.S. Highways 51 and 79, Interstate 55, Interstate 57, and Interstate 69. East-West corridors include the old Butterfield Overland Mail and stagecoach route to Texas and California, Interstate 40, Interstate 22, and U.S. Highways 64, 72, and 78.
Furthermore, Memphis is one of only five cities in the nation served by five (5) Class I rail carriers. Combined with it being home to the largest air freight/delivery hub in the world (Fedex), and the city’s influence can now reach nationwide and worldwide literally overnight.
Such a critical crossroads exudes benefits as an inflection and cross-pollination point for art, culture, trends, ideas, as well as commerce. And this has been true since the city’s earliest days. Memphis was a key riverboat and shipping port, an important jumping off point for those migrating westward, a vital military objective during the Civil War and storage depot during World War II, and was and still is a critical railroad, highway, and air service juncture.
Perhaps most importantly, from a musical standpoint, the city was an important gathering and assembly place for African-Americans during Reconstruction and beyond, including those who used Memphis as the departure point for the Great Migration(s) northward following World War I and World War II. Combine this with the city’s intersecting location between New Orleans (Jazz) , Nashville (Country), and the Delta Region (Blues), and something special was bound to germinate and take root here.
With so many travelers, migrants, former slaves, freedmen, soldiers, riverboat crews, farmers, sharecroppers, and others intersecting here, their diverse cultural influences began to merge and give birth to unique forms of musical expression in Memphis.
Why this explosion of sound artistry took the world by storm from Memphis and not from upriver St. Louis or elsewhere is an interesting question. Aside from the geographic attributes previously noted, the city’s ever-growing music reputation and some bold and visionary steps taken by local entrepreneurs during the Jim Crow segregation era were key contributors to Memphis becoming “The Cradle of American Music:”
- The reputation of Beale Street as a music mecca drew artists from around the region and across the nation.
- The recording studios in Memphis were willing to take chances with a diverse and inclusive mix of artists. These studios included Satellite/Stax Records and Hi Records (Soul, Gospel, and Funk) and Sun Studio (Blues, Rock, and Rockabilly)
- The radio stations in Greater Memphis were willing to air a diverse variety of new sounds and programming. Examples of this include:
- Nat D. Williams was hired as the nation’s first Black disc jockey to work at a white-owned radio station (WDIA) in 1948. WDIA birthed Black programming and its 50,000 watt signal was strong enough to reach 10% of the Black population of the USA.
- WNBR hosting a live, weekly amateur music contest from the Palace Theatre on Beale Street. The Palace was once the largest theatre in the South for African-Americans.
- Since November 21, 1941, KKFA in nearby Helena, Arkansas has broadcast the Blues on a daily basis and hosted the King Biscuit Time radio show every Saturday night. This is the longest running daily Blues show in the nation.
- WHBQ the Red Hot and Blue Show in the early 1950s featuring Rockabilly artists from Sun Studios like Elvis Presley (it was the first station to play his music).
Few places on the planet can lay claim to being the birthplace of multiple forms of popular music, let alone at least four of them like has taken place Memphis. Those of us who adore music in its many incarnations know how important the city of Memphis is on the world stage and wish to thank the Bluff City for all the joy and entertainment is has shared with us through the decades. One can hardly wait for what new and exciting sounds this great city will given birth to, nurture, and ultimately share with us next. No doubt it will be something very special!
If the music history of Memphis interests you as much it does me, here are visual links to two (2) books on the topic that are available through Amazon.com*.
*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using these links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.