Memphis: A Newcomer’s Perspective, Pt. 2

Posted on November 30, 2014


Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment of the Memphis: A Newcomer’s Perspective series. Read Pt. 1 here. 

1506577_10151925320617858_2083177573_nBy: Audrey Petit-Trigg

What led me to this first article? I was looking for someone to introduce me to downtown, and above all to the historical Blues scene, I craved for the ultimate experience of the real Memphis blues, behind the touristic ideals of “having fun”. I wanted to see the reality of what it is to be a Memphian musician on the notoriously famous scenes of Beale Street. I needed a gaze that was not similar to mine, I needed an attuned gaze, and attuned ears to walk me through the mazes of the legendary street.

This is how I met Leigh Johnson.

Dr Leigh  M. Johnson, A.K.A Dr J, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Christian Brothers University. She also teaches in the Memphis College of Arts. Her blog, where you can read her writings on arts, technology, pop culture, music and film in between philosophical discussions, is a window on her personality : committed, passionate, outspoken, one of a kind.

But above all, she’s a true musician, sensitive and eager to fight for what she believes in. And this commitment to the blues scene of Beale Street is reflected in her documentary, “Working in Memphis” available here.

We first met at Automatic Slim’s, and I soon realised she was a living bible on Memphis and the Memphians, especially coming to the blues and country scene. She immediately made a point in taking me to the “real” Memphian experience of blues on Beale Street the following week.

What I witnessed that night, this small glimpse of the Memphian blues scene, these wonderful musicians I briefly met, seemed to me like one of the most authentic expression of the Blues in this mythical street.

We met at Mr Handy’s Blues Hall, an old juke joint. The long dark room led to a stage at the back, where old posters are still reminders of a time when Beale Street was the centre of African American business and life.  That night, The Chris McDaniel Band, was on stage. We arrived just on time to grab a drink with all of them during their break. I was introduced to Chris McDaniel (vocals) and his adorable wife-to-be Marcia Williams who both gave me the warmest hug welcome. Being with Leigh, a close friend of theirs, I was immediately considered as part of the gang. Clyde Roulette (guitar), standing right behind me at the table, asked me straight away where I came from and engaged a conversation about my French roots and the influence of blues in our respective lives. Marcus Phillips (bass) and Ralo Brown (drums), precise like metronomes, were already getting ready to start the new set on stage. On that Wednesday night, the bar was full, people coming from everywhere in the world, asking for songs, singing along, dancing. The energy between public and the band was so warm one could have sworn they all had known each other for a long, long time. I stood there, admiring Clyde’s most acrobatic blues technique on his guitar, and Chris’s absolute mad voice. I could feel the passion for blues and soul classics on that small stage. The passion of a lifetime. Next door, in the Tap Room, Vince Johnson was hitting it off. Sitting on a bar stool with such natural nonchalance, he and his band were charming the audience with an improvised cover of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison’s Blues. The atmosphere was quite different. Maybe it was the dimly lit pool table sitting there, between us and the stage, or the immediate proximity. Maybe it was the sound of the harmonica or that elderly couple dancing in front of Vince, bonded by this invisible feeling. I don’t know what, but there was something there, something undecipherable. A spirit. It was all around, both in the Tap Room with Vince and in the Blues Hall, with The Chris McDaniel Band.

Whoever thinks that the music scene on Beale Street is only about nostalgia and entertainment, is terribly wrong. The Chris McDaniel Band and Vince Johnson are a very vivid example what it’s like to be a musician on this street, keeping the blues legends alive, with all the difficulties that are bond to this passion. They are representing what it’s like to fight for your passion and make it exist, to work hard every day and play almost every night. There on Beale Street, that’s how it is. Marked by the gritty history of Blues in Memphis, ever authentic, this is what I saw: passionate, thriving, beautiful musicians. And, for me, this was one of my first chances to get a glimpse of what it means to be a Memphian. 

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