Cohn wrote this song after traveling to Memphis to check out Graceland, which is Elvis Presley's mansion and a kitschy tourist destination. He made sure to see an Al Green sermon when he was there, but it was a trip out of Memphis along Highway 61 where the meaty part of his journey took place. In the desolate Delta, he saw a sign that said "Hollywood," which turned out to be the Hollywood Cafe, which is a small diner/music joint in Tunica County, Mississippi. This is where Cohn smelled the catfish and encountered a black woman in her 70s named Muriel who was at the piano. After watching Muriel play a variety of spirituals and Hoagy Carmichael songs for about 90 minutes, he spoke with her when she took a break.
Cohn's mother died when he was just 2 years old, and he lost his father at age 12. He spent a lot of time reconciling his childhood, which often comes out in his songs. Speaking with Muriel, he got maybe the best therapy of his life. Cohn described this conversation in his 1992 interview with Q magazine, saying: "She was real curious, she seemed to have some kind of intuition about me, and I ended up telling her about my family, my parents, how I was a musician looking for a record deal, the whole thing. Then, it must have been about two in the morning, she asks me up to sing with her and we do about an hour, me and this lady I'd never met before, hardly a song I knew so she's yelling the words at me. Then at the end, as the applause is rising up, she leans over and whispers in my ear, she's whispering, You've got to let go of your mother, child, she didn't mean to die, she's where she's got to be and you're where you have to be, child, it's time to move on."
The Hollywood Cafe is still there - you drive right past it to go to several of the casinos now located in Tunica. Muriel and Cohn kept in touch, and she attended his wedding in New York. Cohn saw her again when he took another trip down south and played her some of his new songs, but Muriel died in 1990.
This was the first single for Cohn, who was discovered by Carly Simon in the mid-'80s when he was with a 14-piece band called The Supreme Court. Atlantic Records signed him in 1989, but the first attempts to record his debut album with Tracy Chapman's producer David Kerschenbaum failed. Ten months later, he tried again, producing the set himself with help from the little-known Ben Wisch, who had helped him with his demos. Finally released in 1991 when Cohn was 31 years old, his self-titled debut album was a huge hit, thanks to the massive success of "Walking In Memphis." Cohn won the 1991 Grammy for Best New Artist award, beating out both Boyz II Men and Seal. Cohn never matched the chart success of this song, but like his musical heroes Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, he remained a critical and artistic success as a songwriter and performer.
Cohn has explained that this song is a journey to be baptized in the world of blues music. He said it is about "Spiritual Awakening."
The lyrics, "Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale" refers to Beale Street, an actual street in Memphis. Riley B. King became known as the "Beale Street Blues Boy" shortly after he first arrived in Memphis. Later, the nickname was shortened to B.B., and the rest is history.
W.C. Handy, who Cohn refers to in the first verse, is a blues legend. His most famous recording is "St. Louis Blues," but he also recorded "Beale Street Blues" and "Memphis Blues." There is a statue in his honor in Memphis.
Handy was born in Florence, Alabama. Florence, along with Tuscumbia, Sheffield, and Muscle Shoals, is part of this quad cities group usually referred to as "The Shoals" (as immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama
"... 'the Shoals have got the Swampers'). There is a huge festival that takes place every August in the Shoals that honors WC Handy. It is aptly named The WC Handy Festival, and almost everybody, from churches to bars, and even the public library, hosts programs containing jazz, blues, gospel, funk, and rock and roll.
The sounds at the beginning of the song are meant to indicate falling rain.
The reference to "Blue Suede Shoes
" is not about Elvis Presley, but about Carl Perkins, who recorded the song in Memphis for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Perkins' ill-luck in a car wreck stopped him from touring to promote the record, allowing Elvis' cover version to become a massive hit. Presley's copy was recorded at RCA studios in Nashville.
The narrator tells of seeing "The ghost of Elvis up on Union Avenue and followed him up to gates of Graceland." Sam Phillips' studios were called "Memphis Recording Service" and were at 706 Union Avenue. Elvis' start on the journey to fame and fortune (i.e. Graceland) is usually attributed to the success of "Blues Suede Shoes" - and that of "Heartbreak Hotel
The lyrics, "Security didn't see him" is probably a comment on the story that Bruce Springsteen once successfully scaled the wall at Graceland, trying to deliver a song he wrote. Apparently, Elvis wasn't there.
"There's catfish on table and gospel in the air" marks the dichotomy between secular and sacred. Catfish is the standard blues metaphor for sexual intercourse. (The word is also interchangeable with the slang expression for the female sex zones). "Catfish" thus would appeal to the bodily instincts, whereas "gospel" would be to the intellect. The metaphor gains more credence since Al Green supposedly renounced secular music after being scalded with grits by a jealous girlfriend.
The lyrics refer to the girl waiting in the Jungle Room. This was the name of the play area at Elvis' Graceland mansion where he and the crew would take care of business (TCB).
Cher recorded this for her 1995 album It's a Man's World, and released it as a single in the UK, where it hit #11. In her version, Gabriel plays the piano instead of Muriel. It was used in the season 5 episode of The X Files called "The Post-Modern Prometheus," which was the only black and white episode of the show.