MEMPHIS, Tenn.—From Nashville we continued on Interstate 40 toward Memphis. Rolling hill country gave way to the flat plains of the Mississippi Delta.
It’s only 200 miles from Nashville to Memphis, and both cities are in Tennessee, but the cultural distance is greater than that. Winston Churchill once said England and America were “two nations separated by a common language.” The same might be said of Nashville and Memphis, though that common language is music. Nashville’s country and Christian music scene gives way in the Mississippi Delta to gut-bucket blues. Nashville’s Music Row vs. the Memphis of Beale Street and Sun Records. As some Memphians say, “Nashville is for the angels. Memphis is where the devils live.”
I know because I was raised in Memphis. I went to kindergarten at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church on the southside. When my little sister Jackie went to the same kindergarten, one of her classmates was Phoebe Lewis, the daughter of Jerry Lee Lewis, who would sometimes drop Phoebe off at the church bleary-eyed, driving a shiny Cadillac—an unusual sight in our working-class neighborhood.
Nashville has always been a more gentile town than Memphis. That difference was one of the themes of the brilliant book A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by one of my former teachers, Peter Taylor. That book is also a road-trip story, of sorts. The plot revolves around two spinster daughters—and other extended family members—who drive from Nashville to Memphis in an attempt to stop their octogenarian father’s marriage to a much younger woman. Maybe there’s something about Memphis and younger women: Jerry Lee Lewis, also known as “The Killer,” had his career derailed when the public found out his first wife Myra (Phoebe’s mother) was just 13 when they married. Lewis was 22 at the time, and he always insisted that Myra was 15, not 13. Whatever. Myra was also his first cousin.
Like I said, Nashville is for the angels. Memphis is where the devils live.
But God did not give up on Memphis. Remember, after all, that another of Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousins was televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. A bit closer to the center of the theological bulls-eye is Adrian Rodgers, the long-time pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, and one of the nation’s first megachurches. Hope Presbyterian Church is one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the country. According to the website Sperling’s Best Places, about 50 percent of Americans claim a religious affiliation. In Memphis that number is 63 percent. Indeed, the city has always been a place where Ephesians 6:12 did not sound like an abstraction or a metaphor, but rather a line from a reporter’s notebook. I quote the King James Version intentionally (emphasis mine): “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Memphis’ most famous son was, of course, Elvis Aaron Presley, and it is perhaps fitting that his home was called Graceland. When I was a kid, we lived only about 10 minutes from Graceland. If we happened to be driving by and had a few extra minutes, we would pull over and wait to see if we could catch a glimpse of him. I don’t remember that we ever did, but I have many memories of seeing Elvis’s legendary and tyrannical manager, Col. Tom Parker, drive around Memphis in a jeep. He supposedly drove the jeep to remind people of Elvis’s military service. Everything about “The Colonel” was designed to burnish the image of his meal ticket. Lots of people in Memphis and elsewhere blame The Colonel for Elvis’s death. Elvis, that sweet boy from Tupelo who loved Gospel music so much his back-up singers were The Jordannaires. The pressure The Colonel put on him was just too much. It would be too much for anybody, they say.
That’s why calling Elvis’s home Graceland is, paradoxically, both fitting and ironic. If you’ve ever been to Graceland, you know it’s simultaneously fascinating, ridiculous, gaudy, and sad. Social critic Albert Goldman, in a 1981 book on Elvis, said the house “appears to have been lifted from some turn-of-the-century bordello down in the French Quarter of New Orleans."
But it is, nonetheless, irresistible. After the White House and Asheville’s Biltmore Estate—the entrance of which is less than a mile from WORLD’s headquarters—Graceland is the most visited private residence in the country. It is pure Memphis, and pure Americana.
So Graceland drew us like a magnet. After a few quick photos, and since we were so close, we decided to see the home I grew up in. If the geographic distance between Nashville and Memphis does not reflect the cultural distance, neither do the few miles between the 10,000-square-foot Graceland and the 1,500-square-foot home of my childhood adequately reflect those cultural differences. Elvis’s home was a gaudy statement of the millions he made in the entertainment business. Our home, not so much. My father, a Korean War veteran, bought it in 1960 with a VA loan: no money down and about $100 a month for a house that then cost about $14,000. It had three bedrooms and 1.5 baths. To call Memphis’s Westwood neighborhood middle-class would be generous. It was blue-collar, working class. A neighborhood in which the appearance of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Cadillac created a buzz that lasted for days.
Buying that home allowed my parents to grab the bottom rung on the ladder and start climbing. They sold the house for $18,000 in 1970, when my father got a job in Atlanta. The modest appreciation in the value of that house, plus a decade of making mortgage payments, gave my parents enough cash to move us into the fat part of the economic bell curve.
The house I grew up in is now abandoned, so we were able to get out and walk around. It seemed even smaller than I remembered it, and the back yard, where I had engaged in all manner of adventure, was too overgrown even to walk through. A pin-oak my father planted as a sapling in the 1960s was now nearly two feet in diameter, covering most of the back yard in shade.
“Doesn’t that make you sad?” my wife Missy said after surveying the home and yard’s disrepair.
“Not a bit,” I said. “That house met our family’s needs, and I have a lot of good memories.”
Perhaps the most vivid memory I had was of an April day in 1968, a day in which angels and demons wrestled once again in Memphis. Dr. Martin Luther King had been leading demonstrations on the streets as part of a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. My father, who worked in the First National Bank building downtown, would come home in the evening with stories of looking out his 15th floor office window as the police confronted the protesters. Because my family had only one car, every week or so my mother would drive him to work so she could have the car for errands. One of those days was April 4. We picked my father up when he got off work at 5:30 p.m. As we drove out of town on South Third Street, my father pointed down a cross street, to the right, toward the Lorraine Motel. “That’s where King is staying,” he said.
At 6:01p.m., less than a half-hour later, “a shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” as Bono sings it. Dr. Martin Luther King was dead. Classes at Westwood Elementary School—and all of the schools in Memphis—were closed the next day.
This week, we crossed the Mississippi River not on the sleek new Interstate 40 bridge with its spectacular views of the river and the city, but on the old steel suspension bridge that was the only way into Arkansas when I was a kid. Missy and our daughter Morgan were still talking about Graceland as they looked at the photos we took.
For my part, Memphis conjured up a much different Graceland, one in which “powers and principalities wrestle,” but one in which the angels eventually win, a Graceland of memory and hope. I flipped though my CDs looking for Paul Simon’s Graceland. I couldn’t find it. No matter. Memory will serve once again:
The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War
I’m going to Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
Poorboys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland …