Travel Tales: Beale Street Boogie

Rachel and I traveled to Memphis for Thanksgiving weekend to meet up with my son, Dan and his fiancé, Susie. Susie was originally from Memphis, and their wedding was going to be held there in eleven months. It was a chance for us to meet some of Susie’s family for the first time, and to help with a little of the wedding planning.

We arranged to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the beautiful Peabody Hotel. The Peabody is famous for its resident ducks, who spend their days swimming in a fountain in the lobby, and then every evening, waddle across the lobby to an elevator, to be transported upstairs to their lodging for the night. I kid you not. We also visited the Stax Museum of American Soul and learned a lot about the important role Memphis played in the evolution of “soul” music. We recognized many of the names of the original musicians, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MG’s, and Wilson Pickett. Being movie buffs, we recognized many of the songs from movies like The Blues Brothers and The Commitments.

One of the surprises of our visit to Memphis was walking down Beale Street on a quiet Thanksgiving afternoon. This street, in the heart of downtown, is usually bustling with people. Tourists come to shop, eat, drink, and listen to live music. We were staying at a hotel just a few blocks away, and on Thanksgiving day, Beale Street was unusually quiet. Most businesses were closed, even the restaurants and bars. As we strolled up and down the sidewalks on a pleasant afternoon, we passed a few other couples and singles. Some were dressed to the nines, and looked like they were going out somewhere fancy. Almost everyone was African American. Everyone smiled, greeted us and wished us a Happy Thanksgiving. Rachel and I had commented on the friendliness of Memphis people during previous visits.

As we passed a small park, sandwiched between two buildings, two older gentlemen were setting up an amplifier and microphone on a small cement stage. The man with the microphone pointed at us, smiled, and waved us over. Rachel observed that the small audience, seated on a few park benches, all looked like homeless people. It was a nice afternoon and we had time to kill. We decided to join them. We took a seat on a bench at the rear of the seating area. The group of men and women in front of us all had white grocery bags that looked like they contained leftovers from a Thanksgiving dinner. They also each had a large can of beer. When I was in college, my friends called the large sixteen ounce cans, pounders.

After a few minutes of waiting, the duo was ready to play. They placed a Kentucky Fried Chicken box in front of the stage for tips. The older gentleman at the microphone welcomed us and wished us a happy Thanksgiving. The other fellow, carrying an old electric bass guitar, approached the mic and just said, “gobble, gobble.” Then they began to play. They were great! They played a wide variety of soul songs. We recognized most of them. I especially enjoyed their rendition of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. They played a raucus version of Mustang Sally and succeeded in getting the growing audience to sing the chorus with them. Rachel and I did our best to add our voices to the homeless choir. The singer tried to get Rachel to join him onstage to show her dance moves on a song called, Walk the Dog. Rachel politely declined.

About forty-five minutes into the set, a homeless women set down her can of beer, got up from her bench, approached the stage, and began dancing. Many people in the crowd clapped and the singer was encouraging. She was Caucasian, middle-aged and dressed in jeans and a large grey hoodie. Her dirty hair and the lines around her face gave the impression that life had probably been somewhat hard for her. But she was an uninhibited dancer, and she was fun to watch. The musicians got quite a few tips during that song.

A bit later, Rachel and I dropped a few dollars in the Kentucky Fried Chicken box, waved to the musicians, and continued on our way. It was time to get ready for dinner at the Peabody. When we got back to our room that night after dinner, I powered up my laptop and glanced at the news headlines on my homepage. One caught my eye. It read, “Naked woman arrested on Beale Street”. I clicked on the article and the first thing I saw was a mug shot of the woman we had watched dancing a few hours earlier. Her photo had already made the national news wire. The accompanying article said that she had been arrested for disorderly conduct for dancing naked. At first we laughed a little, and then we felt more sad. We were sure that the fun of the afternoon had taken a downward turn.

There was a place for people to write comments about the news article. The first person who responded posed the question of what constituted disorderly conduct and what her real crime had been. He suggested that if she had been dancing with clothes on that she likely would not have been arrested. Her real crime was nudity. Was nudity really the same as disorderly conduct? Was being naked a crime? His comments made me think of Time Square in New York City. There had been many articles in the news about women posing in just body paint, on the streets around Time Square. Some were painted as super heroes and some as American flags. For ten or fifteen dollars you could have your picture taken with them. While creating some controversy, the nudity was legal in the city and the naked photo business was “taking off”.

Rachel and I talked about her several times during the weekend. Our experience with the Beale Street dancer added both a wacky and somewhat melancholy vibe to our otherwise, great trip to Memphis.

 

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