Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki
We’ve been back two days from our trip to western Tennessee, Nashville then Memphis via the Natchez Trace. I’m finding it hard to construct a coherent narrative of everything we saw and did. Impressions and the occasional detail surface. Maybe that’s all a travel tale ever really is, a patchwork of sights, tastes, and sounds?
The first night in Nashville, I was transformed by music. The concert was “Pics and Paws” at the acoustically wonderful Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, downtown. EmmyLou Harris, Patty Griffin, Mindy Smith and Paula Cole took turns singing; it was like we were sitting with them in a jam session in a living room. Every few songs, EmmyLou would make a pitch for the Nashville Humane Society—the event was a fund-raiser for Rover, their mobile “sterilization” unit as J. christened it. She’d remind everyone in the audience that an adorable Jack Russell mix named Henry needed a home. Apparently, she’d been fostering him but it was getting to be too much what with her four other dogs and five cats. And then, they’d return to the wonderful music. Songs about lives that didn’t work out, love that didn’t develop, mysteries that didn’t get solved, dogs that misbehaved. I’d forgotten how much I love live music. That night, in the Ryman, a former tabernacle, I was once again saved.
More impressions from the rest of the trip:
— The isolation, the random placement in a way, of Meriwether Lewis’ gravesite not far from the Natchez Trace and a “rude cabin” where he died, an apparent suicide. No family to claim him so they erected a marker in the middle of nowhere, off a lonely national park parkway. We found it only by accident. Glad we did.
— Route 51 a.k.a. Elvis Presley Boulevard, the only thriving economic life that I could detect outside of Graceland, the rest a barely hanging on, abandoned, boarded-up, barely eking out an existence suburban wasteland.
— The first glimpse of Graceland, and how it seemed punier and diminished from all the photos and the hype.
— Later out in the Soulsville neighborhood, at the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where there’s a replica of a gospel church and a screen filled with choir after choir, singing. Black and white photographs of people from the neighborhood who participated in Free River Press writing workshop, getting their life stories onto the page.
— The first song Nicky the Tour Guide played at the Sun Studio tour, “Rocket 88,” the first real rock and roll song, 1951, sung by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats but it was really written and sung by Ike Turner, yep, that Ike Turner.
— Walking from the last exhibit in the National Civil Rights Museum, up the ramp to view the actual motel rooms where Martin Luther King was staying the night he was shot. The hymn, “Precious Lord,” plays—it was one King had requested to be such at the rally for the striking sanitation workers’ later that night. And then to look out the window at the balcony. The square of cement that was stained with his blood has been lifted out and replaced. A wreath hangs from the balcony railing, has since that night in April 1968. After seeing that, I only wanted quiet. To take my time walking across the street and into the rooming house and the window from which the assassin’s bullet was allegedly fired.
— Ernest Withers’s black-and-white photograph of a line of men, the Memphis sanitation workers on strike. Every one in the front row holding a sign “I Am A Man.” Because they were and are. And that, in and of itself, is the essence of a civil rights movements, a fight for human dignity.