Sunday, September 14, 2008

Memphis, New Orleans, and tourism

With the sudden surge in popularity I've been getting recently I've been sticking firmly to music and there's certainly more of that coming. But this is also about music and music in the city I live in: New Orleans

So first of all *ahem* WE AINT SUNK YET

And the real point of this post, the recent Gambit weekly had an article that echoed pretty much exactly what I've always been saying after visiting Memphis. Which made me think "then why post somebody else's article? Why not just say it? It was your idea" Because this VALIDATES my idea. This stuff is PUBLISHED.

Memphis Soul

By Alison Fensterstock

Memphis continually celebrates its musical legacy.

There's something about living in Memphis that turns everyone into a tour guide. For a week's worth of evacuation, my boyfriend, his dog and I stayed with hosts in Memphis. Every drive we took together was soundtracked by a running commentary on Memphian points of interest, mostly musical: Elvis' high school, Willie Mitchell's studio, Alex Chilton's old apartment. A drive through downtown Memphis, which almost always looks creepily deserted, was accompanied by a brief history of the area's decline after the Civil Rights riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Awareness of Memphis' rich cultural history permeates everything in the Bluff City, from Graceland to Stax.

Memphis was home to some of the most influential labels, studios and personalities in American music from the "50s through the "70s, and for a city that in parts looks much bleaker than New Orleans, amazing work has been done to pay tribute to that. At the former Stax offices and studio on McLemore Avenue and College Street, the original structure has been rebuilt as a museum of soul music that houses everything from original contracts for artists like Otis Redding to vintage tape machines to Johnnie Taylor's platform loafers and Isaac Hayes' leisure suit.

While in Memphis, I worked on a project that included interviews with legendary session guitarist Teenie Hodges and trumpeter Ben Cauley, the only member of Redding's band to survive the 1967 plane crash that took Redding's life. (At the museum, it was odd to see the stocky 60-year-old on video from the early "70s, hot-stepping with the horn section in a leather vest.) Both artists work steadily in Memphis and make a great living. Most recently, Hodges played on indie-goddess Cat Power's 2008 release Jukebox. The museum lauds the two like the kings of the sound that they are.

Our hosts of the tour-guide mentality were hardly lifelong Memphians. They were Lakeview residents whose rental home was destroyed after Katrina, and although their awareness of the city's many stories was based on personal interest, it was buoyed by the obvious pride Memphis has in its own history. In the weirdly empty downtown, the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was shot, is now a stellar Civil Rights museum that does its part to heal the wound that emptied the neighborhood in the first place. Sam Phillips' and Willie Mitchell's studios still function and let tourists take a peek at history. The rebuilt Stax is a one-of-a-kind tribute to the history of American soul music, and Phillips' old Memphis Recording Service is pristinely preserved. Tourists — not just music geeks, but regular folks with shorts and Nikons — flock there and pump cash into the economy. The Recording Academy's southern base is in Memphis, a few blocks from the Lorraine. The Stax facility hosts a NOCCA-like music academy for kids, who learn the ropes alongside a monument to Memphis' musical history, absorbing what makes their city important.

It's hard not to compare Memphis' preservation efforts to New Orleans. Here, Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios — where integrated bands recorded years before Booker T. and the MGs or the Memphis Horns busted the color line, and Fats Domino and Little Richard laid down tracks without which there would have been no Elvis — is a laundromat. Jelly Roll Morton's house has a plaque but not much else.

Since Katrina, some stellar organizations have done fabulous work cleaning up the mess and taking care of the musical community that is so essential to New Orleans' identity and to our tourism draw. But we're still way behind the solidly branded home of the blues in terms of celebrating (and leveraging) our rich musical heritage. The tours we got from our evacu-hosts came from their being part of a city that celebrates awareness of and pride in its history — pride that translates into real, brick-and-mortar institutions that in turn generate tourist dollars.

The next time I drive a visitor past Hollygrove, I'll mention former residents Allen Toussaint and Lil Wayne. If enough of us start to think like that, maybe in a few years all that energy could generate the will to create a New Orleans Museum of Rock "n' Roll, or a rhythm-and-blues museum. Then I can look at Ernie K-Doe's shoes behind glass.

I grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Newman (which explains some), went to Connecticut and got horrible homesickness after Katrina. 90% of what I know about New Orleans came from research while away. In fact, maybe I just pick it up more but I swear more New Orleans music lovers CAME here because of it. Even Quintron isn't a native from what I recall, and that dude seems to eat this stuff up. Ask a New Orleans high schooler to name one New Orleans R&B artist. Rock & Roll artists. Blues. They won't get one. MAYBE Fats. I bet most of them couldn't even get a zydeco. They can do Jazz because it's a buzzword for the city, but how about naming 5. They'll get Armstrong and maybe 2 Marsalises.

I can't blame them though. This stuff is over, and there's nothing cool about it. Well, that's not entirely true. CLEARLY it's cool or I wouldn't be typing this crap, but without hearing any of it I would think old people, many of them dead, probably aren't cool either. Just give us a museum! We can't top Elvis (duh) but we can stand toe to toe with Memphis in terms of quality, variety and originality. Years ago they were throwing around stupid ideas like a Grammy Museum, so you know there's enough money floating around to do something good. But god forbid our tourism actually honors our tradition! You want us to be a tourist in our own city like the commercials tell us? Let people living here realize the culture that they're apart of and get them interested in it. Then we'll do it on our own

The results in Memphis are impressive too. I mean, it's not like they're all playing rockabilly and soul, but I don't think it's a coincidence that Goner Records in Memphis is such a nexus for garage rock. They have exposure to a unique musical tradition and whether these kids even try to or not, it finds its way into their music. Most musical tradition we have now is handed down, mostly in the form of brass bands (and of course, the efforts of the Mystic Nights of Mau Mau and Ponderosa Stomp and the Ogden Museum). I love brass bands, but I wish I could get more than a Dave Bartholo-who? out of most people I talk to.

That's most of what I have to say but I'll throw this in there: a friend of mine told me she heard about a guy in the 9th ward that went ahead and made a New Orleans music museum right in his backyard. If anybody knows more about this, I'd appreciate your tips.

Also, I'd appreciate some input if there are any New Orleans music fans that have visited. Were your interests entertained upon visiting? How?

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