Martin Luther King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis and Bill Clinton
May 15, 2007
Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers!
Because this was Sunday, we thought it would be better to leave Graceland to Monday for smaller crowds. Our option was now to go to famous Beale Street, where the Blues were born. True to form, we tripped into Memphis and 15 minutes from our motel we were parked on Beale Street, at least that part that is not blocked off for pedestrian traffic. Beale Street is being revitalized in a style somewhere between Gastown and Bourbon Street. The historical part is only about 4 blocks long, with W. C. Handy's house at one end and BB King's Blues Bar at the other.
Sunday noon is not the most jumping time on Beale Street but we were entertained by people watching and by a host at a restaurant. He was a black guy in a cowboy hat and Elvis glasses named Robert Williams. He stopped Brenda and said, "I'm going to give you my story in 30 seconds. I moved away from Memphis 20 years ago, I lived in Atlanta and loved it, I moved back to Beale Street 14 months ago and I hate it. Would you like to have a look at our menu?" How could you turn that down...so we had lunch there.
We got directions to the National Civil Rights Museum from our lunch server and she recommended we take the streetcar rather than walk the 5 or 6 blocks for safety reasons. Depending on whom you talk to, Memphis has a rather unsavoury reputation for street safety. We decided to err on the side on caution and, besides, how often do you get to ride an antique streetcar?
The National Civil Rights Museum is in the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street where Martin Luther King was assassinated. In fact, when you walk up to it, the front is as it was in April 1968 with a wreath attached to the railing in the exact spot where he was killed. It was an eerie feeling to be there as they have also incorporated the boarding house from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. Inside the museum the history of the Civil Rights movement is covered from the slavery days to present time with emphasis on major events in the south that are imbedded in my mind; names like Selma, Little Rock, Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) are all covered. Personal audio guides are $2 extra and complement the text information on each display.
The only part of the interior that is retained is rooms 306 and 307, where King and his associates were staying. Period furniture is set up exactly as photographs captured it at the time. The exact concrete spot where King fell and bled has been removed and replaced, creating another eerie sight. We went across the street and saw the rooming house, where a complete set of evidence and timeline of Ray's involvement is displayed, including a full exploration of all the conspiracy theories. It was a very powerful as well as educational experience.
We took the streetcar back to Beale Street to return to Big Blue. Along the walk, we stopped in W.C. Handy Park to listen to a blues band playing. They introduced Howlin' Wolf to the crowd, an old man with a deep voice and big smile. Brenda managed to get a picture of me with him and others gathered around to do the same thing. On the way home, I said to Brenda, "Something's not right. I'm pretty sure Howlin' Wolf died some time ago." Sure enough, when we got back to the motel she looked it up on the Internet and he had died in 1976....Scammed!!
Oh, but did I tell you, it's hot and sunny again...30°C today.
It helped that we now had made several trips up and down the freeway past Graceland and we were there in about 6 minutes from our motel. The setup is very similar to Disneyland in that they have a convenient parking lot with a shuttle if you wish, but it was a very easy walk for us. There are 3 ticket levels, Mansion (mansion and grounds only), Platinum (mansion, private jets and 3 smaller museum displays and VIP (not sure what it includes except jumping the queues). As it was Monday and not all that busy, we chose the Platinum and walked right on to the first shuttle.
You are provided personal audio guides and they are well done, with checkpoints that instruct you what code to enter if you screw-up (which I did frequently). You enter the mansion grounds through the famous gates across Elvis Presley Boulevard (aptly named?) from the ticket office and gift shops. The mansion is exactly as Elvis had it when he died with shag carpets, eight tracks, tube TV's, dark wood and lots of 70's era fabrics. There is a separate racquetball building with a game arcade, pastures and paddocks for horses, go-kart paths, a huge carport, Vernon's office and a meditation garden where Elvis and his family are all buried (they were all moved there some months after Elvis died because of vandalism concerns).
The crowd was interesting with Elvis impersonators, groups of women in their 60's (once upon a time they were screaming teenagers), and a whole lot of couples like us. There were very few children and I don't think it was just because it was a school day; this just wouldn't fit their interests...no rides or noise. At several points on the tour you would see people standing aside weeping, especially at the meditation garden. Apparently they receive flowers and memorials every day and they refresh by putting out new selected grouping regularly.
We visited the airplanes, with the most interesting one being the Lisa Marie, a converted Brasilia Concorde 880 jet. It was deluxed up inside in 70's finery just like the mansion with videos running describing how Elvis, his family and the Memphis Mafia used it. The second plane was a private jet that really paled in comparison to the ones we flew in BC Tel Air...we really were "kings", I guess.
We returned to Blue to drive to Sun Studios for their last tour of the day. Half way there, I turned to Brenda and asked where her jacket was. She got a sick look on her face when she realized it was somewhere in Graceland. This jacket is her favourite and is essential, not for outside, but for when we go into supermarkets or Subways where the temperature is always too cold for her. I told her we'd get back in time o go to Lost and Found to reclaim it, not feeling all that confident about it.
We had a nice little tour of the historical Sun Studios, which has been through several iterative lives since Sam Phillips' day. Luckily, they never tore out the basics of the studio; the lino floors, acoustic tiles and engineers' room, leaving them all intact. We stood where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and even U2 (Rattle & Hum) recorded along with countless black blues and rock artists. There are a few genuine artefacts left here and one they have verified is the old style mike Elvis used when he recorded here, with which I was lucky enough to get a picture.
We hurried back to Graceland and Brenda went to Guest Services to look for her jacket with no luck. However, she stopped in at the diner where she had bought a bottle of water and there it was. Traveling with the luckiest guy in the world has rubbed off on her!
We drove from Memphis to Little Rock along I-40, a pretty boring ride. However, when we got to Little Rock, things started looking up. Little Rock is on the Arkansas River and, like all the river towns we have been in, has a beautifully developed walk and park right in the city. We were destined for Hot Springs for the night so we didn't spend as much time here as we would have liked. On the way out of town, we heard on the local oldies station about next weekend's Riverfest featuring Smashmouth, Marshall Tucker Band, Pat Benatar, Georgia Satellites, Reuben Studdard, Keith Anderson and many more all for 3 days for $10 a ticket! Just like Memphis in May, we were too early. I really need to do more research!
Little Rock is very proud of its association with Bill Clinton (he was Governor of Arkansas for 12 years) and have lots of public space named after him. Our final destination today, Hot Springs, Arkansas is his boyhood home, which they declare with huge signs. This is also where Franklin Roosevelt used to come for healing and relief of his polio. The drive from Little Rock is another motorcyclist's dream of treed byways and gentle, hilly curves (Robert?). The historic part of town has a main street lined with several turn of the century Bath Houses, not unlike Harrison Hot Springs.
Our search for accommodation took us first to a waterfront resort hotel way out of town, expensive and inconvenient so we opted for a cheap and cheerful (OK...maybe not so cheerful, but it was cheap) auto court style motel. On our way there, the skies turned black and there was lightning and thunder; major rain but, fortunately, short-lived. That night we continued our fruitless search for drinkable wine that started in Memphis. Actually, fruitless is the wrong term because if you want fruit wine, like Arbor Mist, they will have it! Do you think it may have something to do with the fact that we began our search Temperance Hill Road?