One of the traits that bars me from attaining the status of True Memphian is that I like the song “Walking in Memphis.” I can’t help it. I know it’s over-earnest and geographically flawed (it’s going to be a long walk to Graceland from Union Avenue, Ghost Elvis; are you sure you weren’t heading to Sun Studios?), but it’s so openly admiring of this town’s unique spirit. I wouldn’t say it’s the best song ever written about Memphis, but it’s one that, as a teenage Minnesotan, made me intrigued about that faraway river town.
I wouldn’t even try to determine the best song about Memphis, because there are more than a thousand contenders for that title. Yeah, yeah, there are only 899 officially recognized (recorded and distributed) songs containing Memphis in the lyrics, but I’m sure that doesn’t count the barge of local music inspired by the city. It’s astounding, really. For a town that barely cracks the country’s top twenty size-wise, it looms largest in the collective imagination of our songwriters. The word Memphis is itself shorthand for the roots of American music, symbolizing the birth of blues and rock’n’roll, but that’s obviously not the only reason it appears so often in song. Memphis is a character, a living thing with a clear identity. Stax may have the building, but the entire city is a museum of soul. It is dirty, broken, deep, and heavy. It is joyful, wild, careless, and probably pretty drunk. It is, all in all, something worth singing about.
Alas, poor Minneapolis. The only list I could find of songs about Minneapolis contained a meager 23 entries, and a fair lot of them were novelty songs produced by local radio stations. Minnesota in general fares a bit better, especially if you’re flexible about interpreting the oeuvre of Bob Dylan, but it’s still not a very long list. Minneapolis is a lovely city, but it doesn’t quite capture the imagination. Like its inhabitants, it steps back and lets others take the glory, plugging along responsibly and with understated appeal. Admirable qualities, but not those that lend themselves well to artistic inspiration. Hence the general dearth of songs about technical writers.
Ironic, then, that two of the top ten best living American songwriters (according to Paste) are from Minnesota: Prince and the aforementioned Bobby D (and two are from Canada, which is basically the same). Why does the great white north create the artists but doesn’t inspire the art? I suppose, ultimately, there isn’t much to write about a landscape that looks like a blank page.
The Folk Alliance conference takes over Memphis this week, with folkies from around the world (including my hometown homie John Elliott*) descending on our city. In the few (okay, 23) years it’s been running, the conference has grown to be a major force, with 1,800 attendees forking over a year’s gas money in hopes of being heard by and making connections with music industry types. Although it’s surely true that “if you sign them, they will come,” I can’t help but think that the conference’s location is also a big part of the draw. There’s something much more appealing about being discovered in Memphis than, say, Cleveland. And surely, these musicians are also aware of this town’s inspirational legacy. It’s practically cheating, coming here with an acoustic guitar and a harmonizing buddy. The songs must write themselves. (Songwriters love when you say that.) Memphis is part of our country’s musical consciousness, and I don’t doubt that these artists will tune into it while they’re here.
Especially while they’re walking.
*Programming note: the formidable trio of Elliott, Rose & DaCosta will be playing a (free? I think?) FAI Public Night showcase at 9:30 pm on Feb. 16. You really, really should go. Here's the info.