Then I'm walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet
Ten feet off of Beale
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Beale Street c 2014
In 1986, singer-songwriter Marc Cohn (originally from Cleveland but living in New York City as a session singer) took a much-needed trip to Memphis Tennessee. His reason for going was a spiritual awakening of sorts to the home of the Blues genre of music. At the age of 28, Cohn wasn’t a fan of any of his songs. He liked them, thought they were okay. But he hadn’t written anything that truly knocked his socks off. Discovered by Carly Simon with his 14-piece band, The Supreme Court, Cohn’s first attempts to record his debut album were largely unsuccessful until 1991’s self-titled album, Marc Cohn
This song was a spiritual journey for Cohn and it is for each and every one of us who listens to the song. I can't listen to it without tearing up a little. It’s 100% autobiographical and follows the narrator through his trip to the birthplace of rock and roll, and in the lyrics, many of the places one might (and should) visit are mentioned.
The first line, “Put on my blue suede shoes,” is a reference to Carl Perkins’ rockabilly song of the same name – recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis. “Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues,” refers to the style of blues music that originated in the Mississippi Delta area at the turn of the twentieth century. “W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me.” W.C. Handy was a blues pioneer who performed on Beale Street with his band and wrote the songs "Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues." There are statues and parks named after him in town, statues which I’m sure looked down on Cohn during his visit.
WC Handy, age 19
In the chorus, Cohn mentions Beale Street repeatedly when he sings, “Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale.” This location is pivotal to the history of the city and of the blues. Restaurants and blues clubs line the street and it has become a major tourist attraction, featuring music festivals and outdoor concerts that bring in large crowds to the street and surrounding neighborhood. It’s the place where you’ll find the Hard Rock Café and a well-known bar called Coyote Ugly.
Fast forward to the second verse and you’ll find references to the King, Elvis Presley himself, as well as his mansion of Graceland. “Saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue. Followed him up to the gates of Graceland, and then I watched him walk right through.” A trip to Memphis isn’t complete without stopping by the second most famous house in America (only the White House gets more visitors per year), and Cohn didn’t miss it, either. Cohn told the Denver Post
in 1991, “The song is so minimally about him [Elvis], but I worry that it gets cast off as another tribute.” But a friend told Cohn, other than the kitschy Presley memorial, there were other places he needed to visit in Memphis which were far more important. So Cohn did as he was told.
First, he went to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Reverend Al Green preach. Cohn said he had chills running up and down his spine (yes, it’s the same Al Green from "Let’s Stay Together" fame). The bridge lyrics mention him, “And Reverend Green be glad to see you when you haven’t got a prayer.” The sermon brought Cohn to tears; “There was something incredibly powerful about Al Green’s voice in that context. Even after three hours of continuous singing, his voice only got stronger and his band only got better.” It would become one of the greatest experiences of Cohn’s life, and growing up Jewish in Cleveland, Ohio, that’s saying something.
Full Gospel Tabernacle Church
Another place he went was to the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Mississippi, to see gospel singer Muriel Davis Wilkens, also a retired school teacher, who performed on Fridays. “Now Muriel plays piano, every Friday at the Hollywood.” The Hollywood is still there to this day, but Muriel died in 1990. Cohn mentioned the experience to Keyboard Magazine
when asked about the story of the song. He said, “I was totally transfixed by her music. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. During her breaks, the two of us would talk. Muriel asked me why I was there, and I told her I was a songwriter trying to find inspiration.” He also told her about his mother’s death when he was a toddler, and about being raised by his step-mother. By midnight, the joint was still packed and Muriel asked Cohn to join him on stage. “The very last song we sang together that night was 'Amazing Grace.' After we finished, Muriel leaned over and whispered in my ear: ‘Child, you can let go now.’ It was as if my mother was whispering my ear.”
The power in Cohn’s melody and the way he sings the songs sends chills up my spine when I listen to it. My a cappella group in college performed it, and every time we got to the line, “Tell me are you a Christian child, and I said, ‘Ma’am I am tonight’,” I performed it with tears in my eyes. One listen to Cohn’s debut masterpiece is enough to send you to Memphis for a short trip. I long to walk down Beale Street and to listen to some blues and gospel music. It was a life-changing experience for Cohn and I feel like it would be a life-changing experience for us all.
~ Justin Novelli
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