Monday, July 21, 2014

Stairway to Cleethorpes

In the past few days we've been in Music City USA (Nashville) and Music City USA (Memphis).  Both claim pre-eminence for some reason or another ranging from birth of the blues, home of country music, home of the Grand Old Opry, the first (and second) place that Elvis ever recorded, Elvis' home town... the list goes on.  But I think it comes down to time, place and the name.

The original Opry

Of course being sited where they are helped.

Imagine you're a poor farmer or share cropper who is struggling to make a living in the southern states in the 1920's and even worse in the 1930's.  What do you do?  Well people did one of two things: they went north or west... along Route 66 to the Promised Land (aka California where land was cheap, fertile and being given away).

If they went north, they used highway 61 which goes up the Mississippi River, the dominant geographical feature here and before interstate highways THE main artery of the region.  First stop was the major staging port of... Memphis, next was Nashville or St. Louis and finally you ended up in the factories or building the new sky scrapers of Chicago.

Some made the entire journey, others stopped along the way and when they stopped they looked around for things to do and when it came to writing songs they found happily that both Nashville and Memphis are great names to rhyme with.  You can't do that with Cleethorpes.

Both cities though are fabulous for music aficionados, rather less so for other types of culture seekers.  Both cities have created sections devoted to music bars, honky tonks and dives that locals avoid like the  plague but which we happy tourists flock to.

And then there are the museums too.  Country Music Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian's Museum of Rock and Soul, Graceland, the Gibson Guitar museum ... these are the ones we went to.  There were loads more that we didn't all along the same theme.  Having gone through days of touring I am amazed how much can be said about stuff.  But then again I'm a fine one to talk seeing I do drone on in these blogs about nothing in particular.

So highlights in brief:

Country Music Hall of Fame -- simply terrific.  I didn't think I could spend 3 hours in a place devoted to country music but there was certainly enough.  Interesting how it all began with a Brit back in the early 1900's who decided purely from an anthropological view to track the similarities in British and Celtic folk songs in the remote bits of ex-colonial America, like the Appalachians.  He found that the songs were very similar but the instruments used were different which made the sound different too.  Fewer bagpipes, more twangy things.  He wrote a book laying down 100 or so tunes that had never been written out before and that was that.  Country music was now born.

Rock and Soul Museum -- wonderful.  Being a fan of both genres I found it interesting how the former came from basically one guy (Elvis) who wandered into a small recording studio called Sun Records in 1954 with $4 and asked to record a song for his granny's birthday.  He did and the engineer noted that he wasn't bad but somewhat derivative of all the droney country singers of that time.  However a short while later he rolled back again and asked to try out a few more songs.  The producer, Sam Phillips, said sure, Elvis handed over $20 and was introduced to a couple of musicians hanging around.  They recorded a couple of throwaway country ballads and when Sam went out for a while they decided to bang away at a couple of other things.  So just fooling around they tried a soul song by Arthur Crudup called "That's Alright Mama" but at twice the pace.  Sam came back unannounced and asked what they were doing.  Elvis apologized and said he wouldn't do it again but Sam said no, please do it again.  It sounded good.  So they did it again ... and 2 weeks later that first single was released and rock and roll was born.  And Elvis had a band too.

Elvis' choice of a soul tune (and later of blues and gospel tunes) brought black music to the ears of the mainstream and so launched the financially successful careers of a host of black musicians who would otherwise have struggled to become mainstream.

This is a very simplistic and brief rehash of all that stuff and I know I'm cutting corners in the explanations which made sense to me anyway.  The sociological stuff was a bit intense and I don't think it was just music that broke down the racial barriers in the 1960's.  It helped of course but was only one of many things happening at the time.

Graceland -- fantastic.  I've read quite a few biographies and autobiographies of musicians I like and with very few exceptions I've been disappointed as most of the stars are unpleasant, selfish egotists.  I don't much want to delve too deeply into the Elvis myth to shatter another but the Graceland view was that he was an exceptional guy.  It certainly is managed with taste and panache that Elvis I think would have approved of.  There were however no later on pictures of a chubby Elvis or details of the less seemly aspects of his life.  But then again this is a celebration not an expose.

I came away more of a fan than I arrived.

Gibson Guitar Factory -- so many things to touch and play with I was however disappointed in the end that I came out just as bad a guitarist as I was when I went into the factory/museum/shop.  I did get to play some beautiful guitars and wish I could have done better justice to them.

Others, mainly miserable spotty youths, had a great time and actually played pretty well which made me no happier either.  However one such youth actually bought one of the beauties and as he was talking to the world weary sales associate, you could see the beam on his face and the underlying excitement that he'd actually bought one of THE best guitars in the world.  Gibson only make to order.  By hand.  And really someone sits down with each majestic piece of work with a razor blade and trims the edges to give all the axes that white trim which ALL Gibsons must have.

I wish I'd bought one.  Not necessarily to play, you understand.  Just to hold some times.  I'd have chosen the E335.

The E335 as played by Alvin Lee at Woodstock in 1969.  They are still red but without those stickers 

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