Mankind’s most valuable cultural skill isn’t speech itself; it’s knowing what not to say. This particularly applies to setting. A nice (if naughty) joke in one part of the country could get a man handcuffed in others. So consider this a starter’s kit for visitors exploring the world — and culture — of Memphis for the first time. These are thoughts better left unsaid.
“What’s with the powder on my ribs?”
If you like your barbecue sloppy with sauce, head to Kansas City. Or anywhere in Texas. If your taste buds yearn for pork the way the gods intended, take the bib out of your collar, put it in your lap, and apply rub to that rack. Yes, “rack” and “rub” are safe to say anywhere in this town.
“The Beatles changed rock-and-roll.”
This is an Elvis town, and will be till the river rises. (More on that later.) At the close of the twentieth century, one list of “most influential” artists after another included the Fab Four, often at the expense of the King of Rock-and-Roll. This despite John Lennon himself saying (as legend has it), “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Believe it or not, there was a Memphis before Elvis. But a billion records — and two statues — later, the kid from Humes High School is the face of this town. Liverpool can have the Beatles.
“William Faulkner was a drunk, and it shows in his writing.”
Oxford, Mississippi, was Faulkner’s home, but Memphis was his muse. If you have a firm grasp of The Sound and the Fury, you may need to lock your own liquor cabinet. Faulkner at his best — like Picasso or Mozart — is not meant for clear and codified interpretation. He rambles, allows distraction to steer his stories, and alters a character’s role with the turn of a page. But from Eula Varner to Flem Snopes, Faulkner’s heroes and villains reflect the muddy-yet-beautiful culture of this region in ways no other artist has captured. You can read Absalom, Absalom! sober. It’s your choice.
“On the sixth day — that would be Saturday — God created football.”
This will be confusing. Memphis sits in roughly the center of SEC country, particularly since college football’s most hallowed league expanded to Texas and Missouri. You’ll see flags for Arkansas, Ole Miss, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi State waving from the windows of SUVs on one highway or another when fall arrives in these parts. But Memphis is a basketball town. A football player has not been born who embodies Memphis culture — all of it, forget “sports culture” — like Larry Finch (the greatest Memphis Tiger of them all) and Tony Allen (skip the Graceland gift shop and find a Grindfather t-shirt). It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the counter-culture nature of Memphians, all too willing to embrace the exotic and different. This town’s heartbeat echoes the dribble of a basketball.
“The blues just makes me sad.”
We know suffering in Memphis. (Check out our college football team. Or the minutes of a City Council meeting.) But we also know the best way to wrestle pain is with a guitar, be it on a dimly lit stage or in front of thousands — in the rain — during a music festival at Tom Lee Park. “Our love is nothing but the blues, baby, how blue can you get?” B.B. King turned loneliness into a meal ticket, and Beale Street has become an international destination for those who’ve been lonely, too. The blues, you see, will heal you.
“This town needs a theater district.”
Well, how about four of them (depending on how you count)? Overton Square could make a case as this town’s central theater district, with Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, and the brand-new Hattiloo Theatre. But then we have touring Broadway shows downtown at the Orpheum, Theatre Memphis in the eastern part of the city, and Opera Memphis near Shelby Farms. Don’t let the spotlight blind you. This old cotton town has plenty of stage presence.
“That is one brown river.”
Before you disparage the Big Muddy, understand there would be no Memphis were it not for these bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Whether or not Hernando De Soto was the first visitor to gaze across the Father of Waters, the sight remains as singular as a view from atop the Grand Canyon, a natural reminder that Mother Nature will have her way. Crystal clear, the water is not. But it’s powerful, flowing perpetually, bending toward its accepted — if unrealized — mission. The Mighty Miss, as metaphor, was Memphis long before the city was named.