Clarksdale Revisited: the Australian Perspective

This past summer, my co-blogger Jennifer and I lured our longtime friend Cam into hitting the road down to Mississippi with us. If you check the roadtrip tag at the bottom of this post, you can read some of our other recollections from the trip, but for now, go read Cam’s lovely article about our visit with Rat at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: Graceland Too

This week, we do a little rewind as Jennifer shares her take on one of the more… exceptional places we visited on NTSIB’s Great Southern Roadtrip of 2010.


Graceland Too, Holly Springs, MS

If I could return to any one town from NTSIB’s Southern voyage last summer, it would be Holly Springs, home to, among other things, Graceland Too. NTSIB stopped by Graceland Too the day after visiting Graceland itself. We happened to arrive at the same time as two ladies from a Tupelo paper, which is how I learned about the concepts of “Birth Week” and “Death Week”, two of the major annual events in Elvis country. In somewhat belated honor of what would have been Elvis’ 76th birthday this past Saturday, here are some pictures from the experience:


Elvis Presley trading cards

The collection of Elvisiana at Graceland Too is the hard work of one man: Paul McLeod. He’s been collecting since 1956, and basically, if it involves Elvis Presley in any way, shape or form, he’s probably got it in his house. He also has hundreds of binders of Elvis-related news clippings, and maintains three televisions devoted to recording mentions of Elvis in popular media.


Photographs of Elvis Presley

The amount of visual information present is actually overwhelming. We only spent a couple of hours there, but I could easily have spent several days absorbing it all. Unlike Graceland – both a rigorously curated time-capsule and a genteel, if glittery, G-rated memorial to someone who lived an R-rated life – Graceland Too embraces all of the chaos and highs and lows of Elvis’ pop-cultural (after)life, from Reese’s Pieces boxes and curtains and rugs with Elvis’ face on them to stuffed toys that sing Elvis songs.


Flowers and other items left at Elvis’ grave

Also, dear readers, I must tell you: I’m an archivist by day, and I was as entranced by the volume and diversity of McLeod’s collection as I was by his methods of organization and preservation. I was very glad to hear some of it had already gone to the Smithsonian.


A corner of two of the four walls covered in Elvis Presley records

In addition to the massive collection inside the house, McLeod is also engaged in outdoor projects. The house changes color now and again – it’s been pink in the past, it was blue and white when we arrived – and there is what I think is a very special Jailhouse Rock exhibit under construction in the backyard, complete with a startlingly realistic representation of an electric chair.

In conclusion, I give you a snapshot of one of the highlights of the visit: Mr. McLeod, singing an Elvis song in his kitchen:


— Jennifer

Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: Clarksdale

Jennifer’s ready to drop some thoughts on our visit to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the city widely felt to be the home of delta blues music.

To Jennifer’s eternal credit, she passed the visit without outward complaint.

April has already shared her memories from our trip to Clarksdale. Here are some of mine:

Kitchen window, Ground Zero Blues Club

Readers, I must tell you: this place creeped me out. I’m from New York, and Ground Zero – problematic and inaccurate though the label may be – only means one place. The blues club opened in May 2001, and so technically came first, but still, despite the delicious fried cheesecake (!), it ranks high on my list of disquieting dining experiences.

I was excited to get out of there and go to the Delta Blues Museum. That lasted for about an hour and three cycles of the video playing in the Muddy Waters cabin. (Keith Richards, what did you do your head??) At that point I had seen everything I wanted to see and thoroughly investigated the gift shop (why does Mississippi not believe in keychain souveneirs??) and April still had half the museum to go. I was kind of ready to claw my face off, so I left Cam and April to their own devices and took myself for a walk around town.

Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS

Blues Alley starts at the Delta Blues Museum (formerly a railroad depot) and runs more or less the length of the town, and is a useful navigational tool if you don’t have a map. I didn’t have an agenda, either, so I just sort of wandered.

Mini-park, useful for respite from the unrelenting heat

What I discovered, sadly, is that large swathes of Clarksdale are boarded up and closed. Though in addition to the mini-park, I did find a scattering of restaurants, a rock and roll museum (about to close, so I skipped it), the site of the weekly farmers market, and a folk art outlet (still no keychains!) which had some lovely but impractical-for-roadtripping items. After I had made two circuits of the folk art store, I realized the Delta Blues Museum had probably closed, so I backtracked and caught up with my companions. We then stopped at the former Greyhound station for additional sightseeing guidance:

Greyhound station, now re-purposed as a tourist information center

April has already told all y’all about our visit to the Riverside Motel, so I’m going to skip over that part and get to the place that I had been most keen to see: Robert Johnson’s Crossroads.


We had passed it on the way in to town, but, anxious about having enough time in the Blues Museum, we left it for the last stop. As you can see it’s not quite as exciting as the legend would make it sound, though that may be due to the evolution of modern life. It’s hard to imagine a dramatic moonless-night bargain taking place in a busy intersection surrounded by gas stations on streets lined with stripmalls, but the place does have a certain kind of magic just the same.


Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: Graceland

On our Great Southern Roadtrip, we trekked over to Graceland, home to Elvis Presley and his family from 1957 until sometime after Elvis’ death in 1977, after we visited Sun Studio. Personally, I was underwhelmed and a little weirded out by the experience. To my mind, it was a sad comment on the deadening excess that too often accompanies the success of music that is born out of raw passion.

Jennifer has a different take on it, so in honor of Elvis week, we give you Graceland…


The first time I went to Graceland I was 17. It was during a particularly packed (and fraught) college visiting trip with my mother, an hour or two taken out to do something that probably wouldn’t result in mutual seething. At the time it seemed enormous and glittery and truly awe-inspiring, and I loved it. I got a small metal pink cadillac key-chain as a souvenir, which I have referred to as the “pink cadillac of freedom” ever since. It represented everything I thought college would be: my chance to get out of the house, to be glamorous, to be, essentially, not what I was, which was dumpy, suburban and square.

Of course that dream only partially came true. I got out of the house, but remained who I was (and I more or less still do), but I still have the pink cadillac in my pocket, to, I suppose, remind me to dream big. Or maybe that the road is there, and I just have to get in the car and get on it.

The second time I went to Graceland was almost approximately seventeen years later. To my adult eyes, Graceland seemed much smaller and far more pedestrian, and yet, readers, can I tell you a secret? I still love it.


The Pool Table

I love it because it is glittery and awe-inspiring, frankly ugly in places, and kitschy in a way that is oddly comforting. I still feel incredibly peaceful when I step into the Jungle Room, even though it is not as Jungle-like as I remember, as if they had renovated it, which of course is not possible.


The Jungle Room

Everything about the place is just a little bit overblown. It appeals to the part of my heart that also loves Brandon Flowers (The Killers) for wearing his sequins unironically. If you’re going to be a rock star, if you’re going to glitter, best to do it in a gold suit:


But on a more sober, detached note, it’s a little sad to walk past the movie posters and the platinum records and feel the narrative shifting. To watch the years march on and the costumes become more ornate and have to start the internal countdown to the end of the story. Graceland itself doesn’t soften the blow; you walk out of a room full of awards and jumpsuits, it’s only a short path to the end:


But even the stark finality of the grave seems somehow unreal. Elvis Presley died 33 years ago this week, and yet, he lives forever. At Graceland, in our hearts (yes, even mine), in the pages of supermarket tabloids, on the radio, and blasting out of the speakers at beach bars. His spirit is still backstage at dirty rock clubs everywhere, hair slicked back and ready to walk out on stage to swivel his hips, make the rafters ring and the girls swoon. He’s bigger than life, he’s rock n’ roll, he is, indeed, the King, and Graceland is his castle.


— Jennifer

Roadtrippin’: Clarksdale, Part II

After our visit to the Delta Blues Museum, we stopped at the beautifully restored Greyhound station in Clarksdale, which now serves as its visitor information center, and one of the friendly gentlemen on duty gave me a helpful map locating blues-relevant sites around town. Using it, we headed up 4th Street so I could photograph the historic marker for Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (not to be confused with his Mississippi Blues Trail marker, which is in Tunica).

Nothing on the marker indicates that its placement is particularly relevant to House’s history, but standing on that street for a few minutes gave a little insight into at least two of the “classes” that populate Clarksdale. Son House’s marker is implanted in the sidewalk in front of a folk art gallery where no one pays you much mind unless you look like you have money to spend, while just down the street, a seemingly schizophrenic man was shouting about something very important to him. These moneyed, white-owned establishments feel heartbreakingly out-of-place in Clarksdale. Though I am clearly operating from an outsider’s limited view, I had to wonder how the relationship between the rich whites and poor blacks plays out as they sit stacked on top of each other in this small town, one just trying to get through while the other exploits the musical history of the area that they could only tangentially be linked to.

Back in the car, I failed to locate Ike Turner’s childhood home (he will be getting his Mississippi Blues Trail marker on August 6) and waffled for a bit on our next destination: back to Oxford to pass out in the motel room (the heat of Mississippi in July great reduces the constitution of us delicate Northerners) or one last stop at the Riverside Hotel. Feeling it would be silly to be in Clarksdale and not at least see the place where Bessie Smith died after a car accident when the Riverside was a hospital and where everyone from Muddy Waters to the Staple Singers stayed once the building was converted to a hotel, I guided the car down Sunflower Avenue.

Parking next to the hotel’s Mississippi Blues Trail Marker, the intent was to just snap a couple of pictures and go back “home”. The Riverside Hotel looks like an unassuming house from the road. If not for the marker and the small, hand-painted “Riverside Hotel” sign, which also proclaims it the “Home of the Delta Blues”, you might not even realize it was a hotel. I smiled at a wary-looking man who was also approaching the hotel and took a photo of the building. The man, dressed in white T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap, engaged me in conversation, but slowly. After a moment, he told me he was the owner of the hotel. I remarked on the history contained in the hotel and after a little more conversation, he asked if I’d like to see the inside.

(Later, we decided that the man, Frank “Rat” Ratcliff, was sizing me up to see if I was a real or “fake” – as he would later characterize one pair of people he did not let rooms to – blues fan. It seemed I had dropped the correct combination of names to give me the keys to the kingdom.)

Photo by Jennifer

Not about to pass up the opportunity, I gathered my companions. Rat gave us a little more history of the place – how he had inherited the hotel from his mother, Mrs. Hill, and how John F. Kennedy, Jr., had once stayed at the hotel, an event I had just read about in Francis Davis’ The History of the Blues – before taking us inside. The front hall is covered in framed photos and news clippings, like a mini-museum of the Riverside and its famous patrons. Rat informed us that this front portion of the hotel had been the men’s ward when the building was a hospital and that the doors to the rooms were the originals from the hospital. A set of stairs leads down to the basement level where Ike Turner and his band had written and rehearsed “Rocket 88” before travelling up to Memphis to record the landmark song at Sun Studio.

Soon we came upon the Bessie Smith room, which is probably the largest of the rooms and is famously not available to let. Portraits of Smith, some painted by former patrons of the hotel, hang above the bed and rest on the bed and on a table outside of the door. A photo of Mrs. Hill also hangs on the wall.

Photo by Jennifer

Rat showed us each room, noting a famous name of someone who had stayed in that room at one time. The Muddy Waters room, the John Lee Hooker room (appropriately, the mattress in this room has “the most bounce”), the rooms where the original Blind Boys of Alabama stayed, the room where Sam Cooke stayed, etc. But as Rat showed us into each homily-appointed room, encouraging us to step in and look around, I realized it wasn’t these former famous residents that made Rat most proud. What is important to him is that people who stay at the Riverside see it as a home-away-from-home. In any dresser in any room, you can find the personal belongings of someone who has stayed in that room before. “They leave their things in the drawer,” Rat says, “and they know they’ll be there when they come back.” When a room is unoccupied, its key stays in the door lock with no fear of being snatched. And Rat doesn’t assign rooms. When you book a room at the Riverside, you can choose any unoccupied room you want (save the Bessie Smith room, of course).

The Muddy Waters Room

When we reached the end of the hall, seeing how we had all partially melted during our tour, Rat invited us to sit in the air-conditioned front room.* In the tradition of older Southern men, Rat likes to talk, and for the next hour and a half, we sat as Rat told us about whatever was on his mind. We learned that Rat had quit drinking a few years prior, that he was working on cutting out smoking (you will frequently see him with a cigarette in his hand, but it will often remain unlit) and that he had a pacemaker. He told us about the club he used to run in
the basement of the Riverside and the copious amounts of liquor he would bring in from Arkansas for the Christmastime patrons of the club. We learned that his daughter Zee was leaving a less-than-ideal job to help Rat run the Riverside and eventually take it over. She’ll be bringing in a computer so that the hotel can tap into the internet and take reservations online. We learned about best business practices and Rat’s intention to transfer his church membership from one in which the preacher was lining his own pockets to one that was community-minded.

Learning that Cam’s hometown in Australia was the same as one of the Riverside’s regular visitors, a blues musician called Sugarcane Collins, Rat instructed Cam to find Sugarcane when he returned home, tell Sugarcane he had a message for him from someone in the States and let loose with a string of expletives. Rat assured Cam that Sugarcane would know who the message was from.

After spending two hours with Rat, it was time for our party to head back to Oxford and let Rat check in a couple of new visitors. It’s difficult not to develop warm feelings for Rat over the course of conversation, and I wondered how awkward it would be if I hugged him goodbye. Happily, Rat was already a step ahead of me and gave warm hugs to both Jennifer and me while giving Cam a hearty handshake (and reminding him of the message for Sugarcane Collins).

When I think of Mississippi now, there are three things that stand out in my mind:

  • Long, quiet roads flanked by kudzu-covered trees
  • sweet tea
  • Rat

When I think about these things, I feel a pang in my heart. Coming back up to Ohio, I found myself resentful of the fact that I couldn’t just jump in the car and be in Oxford or Clarksdale or Memphis, Tennessee, within an hour. I know I will return there soon (possibly even as soon as Christmastime), and at some point, I may even return for longer than a visit.

Here’s a clip of one of the Riverside’s former patrons, the soulful Sonny Boy Williamson.

*The individual rooms are also air-conditioned, and Rat will switch on the air for your room when he knows you’re on your way.

Roadtrippin’: Clarksdale, Part I

Photo by Jennifer

Taking a roadtrip to Mississippi to learn about the blues… it’s like a post from Things White People Like, but it is indeed what this white girl did. I don’t remember when I first heard Delta blues music, but it was likely as a part of some “history of rock ‘n’ roll” documentary I watched as a music-obsessed pre-teen. What I do remember is being immediately drawn to the emphasis on rhythm and the guttural vocal delivery. In the intervening years, my relationship with the blues was an on-again-off-again affair until the time I realized that all the music I really loved, the music that spoke to me the most, drew heavy influence from the blues, especially the Delta blues. The Black Keys, A.A. Bondy, the Gutter Twins, the Felice Brothers, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (obviously), etc., have all paid tribute to various Delta bluesmen – from T-Model Ford to Skip James to Mississippi John Hurt – and allowed the echoes of these Mississippi artists to inform their musical paths.

Delving into the music that influenced the artists I love, I found even more artists to love (and I may be developing an unhealthy fascination with Skip James, but that’s a story for another time). This slow-growing love for the blues was a significant factor in deciding to spend a week in the hill country and delta area of northern Mississippi.

I’ve heard more than one Northerner say it after a trip “Down South”: It’s a different world down there. While this is true, it’s not necessarily in the foreboding way many Northerners unfamiliar with the American South take it. Sure, it seems like racism and homophobia are still extreme there (though one has to keep in mind the old saying “Squeaky wheel gets the grease” and realize the stories we often see in the news are there because they are news, not of the norm) and there seems to be a lot more crazy there (or the same amount of crazy as there is in the rest of the country, just more out in the open, more accepted), but there is also more friendliness there (Southern hospitality is not a myth, and conversation with strangers is a regional pastime) and much more sweet tea. Mmm, sweet tea…

An aside: Having family in Alabama and Louisiana, I can tell you that you can’t judge one Southern state based on another. Just as Ohio and Minnesota are both considered Midwestern states but are fundamentally different in character and terrain, so, too, the South.

Our roadtrip itinerary was very casual and, honestly, only half-informed. I knew that if I was going to be in Oxford, Mississippi, for a week, it would be a crime not to make a day-trip to Clarksdale. But the only things we knew we’d be doing for sure upon hitting the small town were visiting the Delta Blues Museum and eating.

(In retrospect, I wish I had known about Memphis & the Delta Blues Trail, a music-lover’s travel guide written by Justin Gage of Aquarium Drunkard and his wife, Melissa. I will be picking up a copy for my next trip down.)

We stopped at Ground Zero Blues Club, the painstakingly “run-down” restaurant/club co-owned by Morgan Freeman, just because it was conveniently located a short walk from the Delta Blues Museum. My capsule review: It’s alright. It’s a little try-hard in terms of creating atmosphere, copying Taylor Grocery’s decorating technique of letting people write on the walls (actually, people have written on every available surface – I’m surprised our dinnerware wasn’t covered in magic marker scrawls) and playing a requisitely bluesy selection of background music (on a sound system that began breaking down halfway through our meal). The food itself was only okay, though travel companion Cam fell in love with the fried pickles.

After lunch, we hit the Delta Blues Museum where I spent twice as much time as my travel companions. This is something everyone who visits a music-centric museum with me should be aware of: I will read every placard and muse over nearly every exhibit. Don’t make any plans for the rest of the day is what I’m saying.

The Delta Blues Museum is as humble as the Delta itself. One floor, one room, with an attached gift shop. Many of the exhibits consist of clothing. A jacket from Little Milton, a snazzy suit from Pinetop Perkins, Charlie Musslewhite’s shoes. There are a number of guitars on display, but most of them don’t appear to have been owned by anyone “of note”. Some excellent photography of the musicians and places of the Delta lines the walls. At the time of our visit, the photographers’ work on display were William Ferris, Nathan Miller and a third photographer whose name I have forgotten and is not listed on the museum’s website.

This is not to say the museum is without some very interesting “artifacts” (it seems odd to tack that word to remnants of a breathing art). Some highlights include a bag of flour emblazoned with Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) visage from the height of his popularity in his spot as host of the King Biscuit Time radio program and sculptures created by James “Son” Thomas. But the museum’s undoubted pièce de résistance is the one room left of the cabin in which Muddy Waters was living when he was recorded by Alan Lomax.

It’s kind of a shock to come upon, just sitting there at the far end of the museum, not roped off or enclosed behind glass. You can run your hand over the wood, feeling the splinters come away against your palm. You can walk inside it and sit down to watch a short documentary on Waters while a slightly discomfiting life-size sculpture of Waters stares at you from a small stage and Billy Gibbons’ Muddywood guitar, which Gibbons (ZZ Top) had made from one of the floorboards of Waters’ cabin, sits in a case off to your right.

All of these “accessories” were added when the House of Blues took up the cabin and sent it on tour. And while it wasn’t quite as terrible as I had feared from reading about the display beforehand, it is still a typically gaudy and unnecessary move from the House of Blues. A placard on the cabin notes that it will eventually be returned to its original home on Stovall Farms outside of Clarksdale (without all the schmaltz, one hopes).

Videotaping and photography are prohibited in the Delta Blues Museum, so here’s a clip of Muddy Waters and his band play “Got My Mojo Workin'” to satisfy the visual quotient for this post.


Roadtrippin’: An annotated travel playlist with visual accompaniment

This week, Jennifer treats us to some highlights from her roadtrip playlist along with various photos from our trip to Oxford, Mississippi. Bob Dylan seemed to be an underlying theme of our trip, beginning with some giddy, punchy conversation over dinner on the first night of our drive wherein Jennifer and I told Cam how Dylan had recently been picked up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where the apprehending officers did not recognize him.

I would also like to note that I was not party to the Lady Gaga song.

Selections from the roadtrip playlist, with annotations, and some photographs from the road:

1. Battle Stations, Brine and Bastards – I bought two roadtrip necessities in a truckstop somewhere in Ohio: a satin Peterbilt pillow, for napping in the back seat, and a radio converter for my iPod. This is the first song I cued up once we had everything set up. Brine and Bastards specialize in punk songs on topics of interest to pirates; this particular tune is one I use to get myself moving in the mornings.

2. What Are You Waiting For, Phantom Planet – This one is iTunes bonus track from the Raise the Dead record, and came up randomly on shuffle after Brine and Bastards. The lyrics say it all: We’ll drive for miles / we’ll drive across town / we’ll drive with all the windows down and Every turn we take / creates a different destiny. It reminds me of my first roadtrip on a warm early summer day in 1992, when, giddy with the end of the school year and having been given my mother’s car for the day, I gathered up my best friend and her brother and drove a whole thirty miles to Leesburg, Virginia, where we got ice cream and then came home.


Art in the airport, Cleveland, OH

3. Fallen Angel, Poison – The first song I put on when it was my turn to drive. The part of Virginia I grew up in has a fair number of narrow, twisty, tree-lined streets. I particularly enjoyed driving them with this one cranked up as loud as possible. Every time I hear the opening chords I remember the joy of navigating tight turns and then gliding out onto the open road. And also the basso roar of the Volvo engine. I loved that car.

4. Adeste Fidelis, Bob Dylan – I put this one on as we were going from Sun Studio to Graceland. It’s from his 2009 Christmas record. I only made them listen to the first verse, which he does, in fact, sing in Latin. The whole idea of “Bob Dylan” and “Christmas record” is kind of mind-boggling, but it’s actually one of my favorite renditions of this particular song, mainly for his unfussy delivery. It is the antidote to every over-saturated saccharine carol ever recorded.


Cam and April investigating a phone booth, Oxford, MS

5. Chameleon, Del Rendon and the Puerto Rican Rum Drunks – An entry from a (kind of) local band – Del Rendon was from Starkville, MS – this was another one I played on the way to Graceland. It’s kind of slow, but it isn’t a dirge. It has a sweet melody and sharp lyrics, one of my favorite combinations, and is a song that has kept me company on many journeys in the last couple of years.

6. Wake the Dead, Family Force 5: And then, on the other end of the spectrum, some sweet dirty Georgia crunk. I first encountered this band at Warped tour a couple of years ago, and they’ve been a staple of road-trip playlists ever since. They’re particularly fun to listen to when you have a big stretch of open highway in front of you.


Animal skull in the Jungle Room, Graceland, Memphis, TN

7. Desolation Row, My Chemical Romance: Dylan purists, you may be horrified, but I love this version of this song, particularly the quasi-dueling guitar solos. I also find it very soothing in heavy traffic, or when trying to find my way through unfamiliar territory.

8. Bad Romance, Lady Gaga: I contrived to kill my phone the day we went to Holly Springs, and it wasn’t until we got to Louisville two days later that I could take it somewhere to try and get it fixed. I was hot, anxious, annoyed and bracing myself for dealing with the people at the cell phone store. I needed a little bit of swagger for moral support, which is basically this song in a nutshell.


As seen from the parking lot following the screening of The Big Lebowski, Lebowskifest, Louisville, KY

9. Don’t Let Her Hold You Down, Michael Runion: This one floated up in the shuffle as we were making our way through the gentle rolling hills of north-west Kentucky towards Cincinnati. It was a quiet moment in the car; everyone else was asleep, or I thought they were, and outside the landscape was bruise-bright from recent rain. The mournful sweetness of the song fit in perfectly. It was a roadtrip Moment of Zen.

10. Bittersweetheart, Soul Asylum: This one also came up somewhere in Kentucky, though it may have been before Louisville, not after; I can’t remember anymore. Soul Asylum is another band that’s kept me company on numerous journeys over the years, particularly journeys that involved plunging into the unknown. It’s always a comfort to hear them coming out of the speakers.


Roadtrippin’: Sun Studio

Some people wouldn’t understand. This is not conceit on my part but an observation based on the fact that people were all around, but I was the only one standing at the glass wall, gazing in glaze-eyed wonder. I may or may not have pressed my face to the glass. I was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and behind the glass was a mixing board from Sun Studio. I was imagining the hands that had turned those knobs and the music that had been monitored through that console. I was transfixed.

About ten years later, driving down Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, I grew giddy with excitement when I spied the huge (and impressively accurate) Gibson guitar sign that now marks the original home of that piece of unassuming equipment I had swooned over at the Rockhall. Walking up to the old storefront studio is a little like stepping into a time vortex for a moment, like straddling an invisible boundary between Then and Now. This feeling is instantly wiped away when you step into the Sun Studio gift shop housed in the adjoining building, crowded with tourists and merchandise, but that’s forgivable enough when you look at the photos displayed on the walls of the artists who recorded at Sun and see things like a reproduction poster announcing a “The Howling Wolf Vs. Muddy Waters” gig ($3.50 advance/$4 door).

At the half-hour, our tour was summoned up the stairs to the museum where a modest collection of photos and artefacts are displayed, and we were introduced to our tour guide, Jason, who was part rocker/part classic deejay/part carnival barker (more about him on NTSIB in the near future). Jason prepped us for our eventual step into the actual studio by giving us a condensed history of the studio (which began life as the Memphis Recording Service where Sam Phillips would record artists and then sell those recordings to labels like Chess Records before he decided to start his own label), sharing interesting trivia (the distortion effect for guitar was born when the guitarist for Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s band damaged his amp en route to the studio and repaired it with paper before recording what is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88”) and sampling some of the msuic (Howlin’ Wolf, “Rocket 88”, Elvis Presley’s very first recording). Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston

After viewing Elvis’ controversial, pelvis-swinging television debut, it was time to enter the studio. Descending the stairs and passing through the former office of Marion Keisker, Phillips’ secretary and the first person to record Elvis, I suppressed a giggle as I recalled the Sun Studio scene from Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train in which the tour guide’s rapidfire spiel leaves a young Japanese couple mystified and exhausted. But when I walked into that small, simple, white room, I began to fight back tears. Scholars could argue for ages about where and when rock ‘n’ roll actually started, but I believe I’m safe in saying that if it wasn’t for the events that occurred in that room, NTSIB would not exist. Whether or not the songs recorded there started rock’ n’ roll, they were integral to the evolution-revolution that created the music I love, the music that is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. When I stepped into that studio, I could feel the weight and power of that and was overcome in the most invigorating way.

Tour guide Jason continued to tell us about Sun and the great artists who got their start there, but I had a difficult time concentrating as the room itself and the spirit in the room (spirit, not ghosts – that room is alive) monopolized my attention. That small, humble, slightly age-worn room where Wolf, Ike, Carl, Elvis, Johnny, Roy, Jerry Lee and others effectively changed the world.

When the tour was over, I asked Jason, “Do you ever get used to it?”

I didn’t have to explain what I meant.

“Not really.”

Sun Studio Official Website

Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: Sun Studio

Today, Jennifer takes us on another leg of our Southern roadtrip: our visit to the legendary Sun Studio. I’ll post my own observation tomorrow, but we had to share Jennifer’s wonderful photos with you all.

On Tuesday of last week, we put the road back in road trip and voyaged up to Memphis to see Sun Studio and Graceland.


It is no exaggeration to say that rock and roll as we know it began here in a ragged room on a run down corner in Memphis. Today it is both an active recording studio and a museum.


This is a reconstruction of the office of Marion Keisker, the lady who recorded Elvis Presley singing for the very first time, and, more importantly, kept a copy of the recording to share with Sam Phillips. We got to hear it during our tour, a little bit scratchy and rough but undeniably The King. I felt a little bit like I did when I watched Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, having to remind myself how new and different his voice and presence would have been, how it would have been a kind of lightening strike.


Some of the guitars lined up against the wall, which are, from what I gather, used by musicians who record in there at night, after the tour groups leave. The room is full of pictures of Elvis and also of other luminaries who recorded there – Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bono – and I ultimately couldn’t decide if I thought that would be intimidating or encouraging for new acts.


And finally, the drumset, surrounded by Elvis, and in the foreground, a mic that was used by numerous early artists at Sun, including, possibly, Elvis Presley. The guide had hauled it out for purpose of Photo Opportunities, which some of our fellow tour members indulged in, and others did not. It was an interesting moment, both for the people trying to recreate a very specific kind of magic with various levels of success, and the microphone itself. It is simultaneously one of the many props in the floating Elvisland that is Memphis, a relic, a simple piece of machinery, and a tangible piece of the history of the place that all of us could touch with our own hands. Look at it long enough, and you can almost hear him inhaling, getting ready to launch into Hound Dog, and set the girls’ hearts a-flutter.

— Jennifer