Beale Street

In addition to more rigorous research, I’ve been visiting and photographing Beale Street and chatting with tourists for the last three weeks. Beale was declared the official “Home of the Blues” in 1977. According to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, the street receives over 4 million annual visitors, making it the top tourist attraction in Tennessee. There’s a lot to say about Beale, but for now I’m just sticking with some visuals that show the ebb and flow of visitors at different times of the day and on different days of the week.

Beale on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon

 

Beale on Friday afternoon and night

 

Beale on Saturday evening and late night

 

I’ve been trying to get in touch with the Beale Street Development Corporation for a few years. I’ve never received a reply and, since their office is on Beale, I decided to just knock on their door today (mid-day on a Tuesday). Well, there’s a serious locked and dusty gate on the stairway to their office, so I’m fairly certain they don’t use this facility anymore.

 

What the hell: Clarksdale Pt. 2 in photos

What the hell: a blues tourist in Clarksdale.

I’m irritatingly skeptical of everything “fun.” It might be the New Englander in me. Breaking into an abandoned building to read old medical records? That’s fun. Disneyland, cruise ships, guided tours? The possibility that some one-size-fits-all, for-profit construction of “fun” could actually be fun seems nonexistent. If you’ve never been a grad student, I’ll tell you what year one is like: you read books by weighty authors and are expected to speak confidently about how wrong their posited ideas are, how unpleasing their writing is, or how outdated and idealistic their notions of authenticity, racial essentialism, ethics, aesthetics, gender, and politics are. So I can still do my skeptical schtick, I just need footnotes. Sometimes, we even talk about blues (read: we talk about what Elijah Wald says about blues, because he’s done the skepticaling for us).

As a blues fan, I embrace some aspects of blues tourism while finding others problematic. Yes, I used the Mississippi Blues Trail markers to visit Magic Sam’s house in Grenada several years ago, and it was awesome. But I also wrote an undergrad paper on the impact of urban renewal on Beale Street. In short, Beale was closed for a decade-ish and then rebuilt as the tourist destination we know today. There’s very little literature detailing the institutionalized and systemic racism and classism that led to the closure of Beale; sweeping that stuff under the rug keeps the “home of the blues” mythology neat and simple. I get it. Blues needs landmarks, Memphis needs tourist dollars, and people want to experience music in a bar that opened when W.C. Handy was alive, but I’m uncomfortable with reproductions being passed off as authentic, lineage narratives that are gussied up for the general public, and the fetishization of physical places that come to represent “blues.” It is a musical genre and culture filled with folklore and fakelore, and that’s part of the appeal for me, but the complicated, problematic parts of the story are often unrecorded, inaccessible, and certainly not promoted. If something in blues is aimed at blues fans, I usually skip it.

Weirdly, I’ve been told by starry-eyed blues tourists as well as eye-rolling blues skeptics that the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi is worth a trip, worth a pilgrimage, even. And I find myself in Mississippi for the Blues Symposium at Ole Miss (yes, blues has a symposium!) with the fest starting today, my one free day, the day I figured I’d finally break into the Sterick Building in Memphis. I had hoped to catch guitarist Josh Roberts in Memphis last night, but a long day and a severe weather warning kept me inside the Best Western, so I’m jonesing for a music fix…

What the hell. Juke Joint Fest it is.