Memphis Music Heritage, 1920’s-1930’s

Posted on April 1, 2014

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By Isabelle Nelson and Parker Lyons

1450253_666625450036966_1296794244_nLocated on the Mississippi River, Memphis is a perfect location for trade and agricultural opportunities. Of all the cities that flourished with traditional blues during the 1920s and 1930s, none provided more splendid diversity and top-notch quality musicians than Memphis. During this time, the city was an economic center for cotton and other rural trade. Booming business led to numerous job opportunities, and musicians were attracted to the lively streets of Memphis. Flashback to Beale Street in the 1920s, when the theaters were filled with orchestras of musicians who read from elaborate scores, jazz bands who regularly improvised, and vaudeville blues singers. At this time, one had the grand opportunity to hear a magnificent variety of blues styles. In the smaller cafes one could almost always find blues pianists, small string combos and jug bands jamming away on their guitar, lead harmonica or kazoo, jug blown bass and banjo or fiddle for rhythm. A majority of the jug band musicians and the solo blues guitarists were forced to play for tips on the street or in parks of Memphis to obtain money.

The jug band trend immediately took over the imagination of the city’s musicians and drew up several talented bands, setting a new standard for Memphis blues. The Memphis jug band, the most popular of these bands during the 1920s and early 1930s, produced dozens of records from their recording career that extended almost a decade. However, generally with immense success many Memphis bluesmen of equal talent performed and recorded solo or in a duo. Born in Shelby County in 1888, Frank Stokes teamed with Dan Sane to form Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters. Roaming down to Beale Street—under the name of the Beale Street Sheiks—Stokes and Sane combined their talents with complimenting guitar styles and clever lyrics. Stokes would eventually record 38 sides between Paramount and Victor records. More importantly, would be his influence on Memphis music that is still evident in local music. The mixture of deep voices, thoughtful lyrics, and a certain style of rhythmic guitar are prevalent in Memphis. In fact, Stokes is deservingly credited as the founder of the Memphis blues guitar style. Personally, I have had the privilege to speak to many musicians that try to follow a similar path as Stokes in Memphis. Stokes was a keystone, however; unable to copy but held as the expectation of Memphis music. It seems that Memphis musicians must explore the blues style in order to receive any sort of recognition. For such a diverse city, Memphis can come off as close-minded in its musical preference. Perhaps Stokes set the bar too high and too distinct for the success of other Memphis musicians in the future.

The problem with this theory is that there are, in fact, successful musicians in Memphis that do not sound like Stokes. In fact, Memphis music seems different with each bar on Beale and street corner downtown. What is it, then, that makes Memphis music so distinct? How did Stokes and other revolutionary musicians of the ‘20s and ‘30s influence these modern musicians.

It was only a few days ago that I started to explore these questions. Sitting in the front row of a small concert, listening to the incredibly emotional and sophisticated lyrics of local musician Chris Milam, I felt a close connection to Memphis music. Milam did not sound like Stokes or any successful Memphis musician in the lower half of the 20th however, were packed with Memphis heritage and appreciation. This must be the style that Stokes truly left behind for Memphians to enjoy in the future. The guitar blues style is still very prevalent in Memphis, but it is not necessary to sound like a Memphis musician. Surely this centuries lyrics infused with emotion and wit, will endure any future changes in Memphis style. Words are unfortunately limited, and unable to provide due credit to every musician involved in the rise of Memphis music throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was the movement in its entirety that encouraged Memphis to become a music city. There is a distinct sound to Memphis music, but it is not confined to a single style. Memphis guitar blues is an incredible sound, and countless musicians will be influenced by this style for years to come. We look forward to exploring the next decades in Memphis music, hopefully to find more answers to explain the unique complexity of Memphis musicians and their styles.

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Posted in: Music