If you're down in Memphis, you best stop down minglewood
When I take a walk down there, all the women sure look good
Hand-drawn Confederate map, c 1861, depicting military installations along the Mississippi River from Ashport to Memphis, Tennessee
Before digging into this story, it should be noted that there is some dispute over the precise location of "Minglewood," and any definitiveness to the matter has been lost to time. We here at SongPlaces have never shied away from controversy, however, so we're diving in and taking this bull by its horns.
To start, we need to untangle the alluringly odd title of the song. "New, New Minglewood Blues" is so named because it is the "new" revision of "New Minglewood Blues," which itself was a revision of "Minglewood Blues."
The original "Minglewood Blues" was first recorded by Cannon’s Jug Stompers way back in January 1928. Noah Lewis was a member of that band. Two years later, he struck out on his own with the Noah Lewis Jug Band and recorded “New Minglewood Blues.” It was this version that the Grateful Dead drew from for their rendition, hence the title "New, New Minglewood Blues."
Because the original song is so old and came from a little-chronicled area of the country, the details surrounding this Minglewood are hazy. Even with generations of Deadheads and historians digging at it, the details are somewhat uncertain. However, Blair Jackson's Goin' Down the Road
relates that bluesmen and jug-men who lived during the era have gone on record with Bengt Olson saying that Minglewood was a box factory in Ashport, Tennessee. The aforementioned Noah Lewis was employed at this factory.
Jackson's book is one of the most loved Dead books out there, so we're taking the Ashport from it as our "song place" for this article. However, it should be noted that the subject is not so neatly settled. The Grateful Deal Lyric and Song Finder
notes an email received from one John L. Yarbro, Jr. It goes:New Minglewood Blues was originally written about a company mill village, Menglewood, Tennessee (built by the Menglewood Box Company) which my grandfather purchased along with the former woodlands in the 1920's, cleared and farmed. The property is still in my family. My father grew up in Menglewood, but it was a lot tamer after my grandfather moved his people there. Local history about Menglewood as a company town paint it as wild and wide open with whiskey, women and gambling. Menglewood is located about 78 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, alongside the Obion River which is in the Mississippi River floodplain.
As you can see, Yarbro's info complicates the Ashport story slightly. But the enigma doesn't end even there.
The article "59 'Minglewood Blues' by Cannon's Jug Stompers" on The Old Weird America
references a piece entitled "The Myth of Minglewood" taken from the Minglewood Hall website. The Minglewood Hall site was down when I tried to reference it, but The Old Weird America
is a quality site and I'm taking their word for the veracity of their reference. The article that they posted reads:So one afternoon my wife and I set out to find the Menglewood I had seen on the map. We drove north of Memphis for about an hour. We passed the location were the town was on the map without seeing any signs, so we turned back and asked some of the locals at a gas station. Turns out we had driven right through it! What we found was about 8 to 10 houses bunched together alongside a rural road. We saw a woman in her yard planting flowers, so we stopped and ask her. Turns out Menglewood is an old name for this very small community. The side road by her house used to be called Menglewood Road, but it had been changed to a route number. Menglewood itself had been merged with another nearby community and there were no signs left that refer to it as Menglewood. The locals still use the name, but it's slowly fading away. I was really hoping for a sign to take a picture of, but none was to be found.
You may ask why would you stop by Minglewood when you're in Memphis if it was a saw-mill or a box factory? One explanation I've seen is that the song refers to a "good time" place near Minglewood where the workers went to drink and gamble.
So, did I find Minglewood? Well, to be honest, I'm not sure. The little community that's called Menglewood is sort of far (25 miles) from where the saw-mill was supposed to be in Ashport, especially for the 1920s. I guess I'll just leave this one open until I get a chance to get back to Tennessee.
Essentially, we are left with a mystery. Minglewood most definitely existed in some shape or form, and it possibly still
exists (though it's hard to believe a place could be so difficult to locate or verify in the modern Internet age), but exactly where, we can't be sure.
What we do know for certain is that "New, New Minglewood Blues" was written by Noah Lewis. The Grateful Dead recorded it on March 17, 1967, for their eponymous debut album. Its first documented performance was on May 19, 1967, at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. It's a stomping fun tune and has seen many legendary live performances by the Dead.
Wherever the old Minglewood was, the song about it has seen quite a bit of life. Nearly one hundred years of it, in fact, as of 2016.
(P.S. If any of our fine readers have any information to add to this mystery, either for clarification or just fun times, please do let us know in the comment section. Any of you from Ashport?)
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com). He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.