The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
In Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
These are the world famous lyrics of Paul Simon about the city I am writing about today. A couple of months ago I already wrote about my stays in Nashville, that other famous music city in Tennessee. Now it is time for the second one which might be even more famous, Memphis. Known for Elvis, Graceland and the Lorraine motel. The place where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. But there is more to see and do.
From Nashville I took the Greyhound bus to Memphis. The bus led me through the hilly countryside of Tennessee with its estates, farmlands and forests. I almost imagined myself back in sixties. Have you seen this Greyhound midway station? How idyllic do you want it to get. After a trip of 8 hours (with WIFI) I arrived at an abandoned bus station in Memphis. After finding out there were no busses going downtown (it was a Sunday) I shared a cab together with another traveler to my hostel.
Pilgrim House Hostel
The Pilgrim House Hostel is where my bed stood the next two nights. It is situated in the Cooper Young district of Memphis. I have not found any other hostels in Memphis. The rooms were clean, the facilities ok and the sanitary fine. They also have a funny rule: every night you stay there you need to do a shore the next morning. It differs from making ice cubes to sweeping the floor. Small chores which do not take more than 15 minutes and it contributes to the sense of community inside the hostel. In the area around the hostel you can find nice bars and cheap restaurants. I also saw a few artist studios. The district has a nice and creative atmosphere
Real handy are the bikes which you can rent inside the Hostel. I immediately rented on so that I could get a vibe of the city. Eventually it brought me through vast streets with nice wooden houses on either side of the street. A view I only knew from movies. My bike took me all the way to Beale Street that evening.
The music street of Memphis where you can listen to live music in every bar after a day of sightseeing. There really are a lot of bars in this street so a good pub-crawl is also possible. I spend the night in the BB King Blues bar and I really enjoyed walking up and down Beale Street. It is fun to see all the people out on the street, having a party. On my first night, there was a game playing in the FedEx Forum. This meant there were a lot of cops on the street and this did not contribute to the general sense of safety. Kind of strange but this is how I felt. Around 11PM I found it time to head back to the hostel. I had a busy day ahead of me and I wanted to see a lot more of Memphis.
After finishing my morning chore (emptying and filling ice trays) and enjoying my free pancakes breakfast, it was time to grab my bike and head downtown again. First place to visit was the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, Sun Studio.
This is the place where world famous Rock ‘n Roll, Blues and Country artists recorded their first records. The most famous are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis but this is just a small selection of the many artists who signed their first record deal with Sun Studio. The studio is situated on the corner of Union Ave. and Marshall Ave. and it has not changed since 1950. Every square inch of the building breathes music. You can get a tour through the studio but just standing in the small bar is an experience on itself. Great advantage is that you can take a free shuttle bus to Graceland from here.
So I took this bus to Graceland. The estates of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n Roll. This will probably be the main reason why you will visit Memphis in the first place. For some reason I thought it was a huge villa but I found it modest.
The tour over the terrain cannot get more American. After you have bought your tickets they take your picture (I do not know why people buy these photos) and you get stuffed into a large Ford truck which takes you to the estate. You get dropped off at the front entrance of the mansion where you are allowed to take a few pictures (be quick about it). Inside the house you will have more time to take it all in. The decorations are a bit bold and the rooms have extraordinary names like the Jungle room or the Pool room. Also the TV room is special with its black and yellow decorations.
Outside, the meadows with grazing horses around the mansion are beautiful maintained. Of course you can see hundreds of golden records in, how appropriate, the Hall of Gold. And in the Racquetball Building you can find Elvis’s extravagant suits. Highlight of the tour is the final resting place of Elvis. And next to it lie its parents and grandmother. It is a nice and serene place where fans can show there last respect to their hero. On the other side of the street you can find many of Elvis’s cars and a few of his planes. You will have to pay separate for every part of the tour or buy an all-in-one deal. Despite the super American program I found it really special and awesome to see. This truly is a must-see when you are in Memphis.
National Civil Rights museum
Back to reality!!! During my readings into Memphis I realized that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine motel on 450 Mulberry Street. This was of course a sight I had to see for myself. After the murder the owner turned room 306 into a memorial place. And in the early nineties they placed a museum in the motel. Starting in 2012 the museum had a make-over of $27,5 million dollars which ended with a grand reopening in 2014. The end result was a state of the art museum which will last us for many years. The rebuilding also was controversial because many people think this money was better spend on poverty reduction. You can still see the banners hanging in the area.
I think that the museum absolutely contributes to the awareness of human rights violations against African Americans. The story takes you from how the first Africans were brought to America by slave traders on ships only to work on the large cotton plantations in the South. They put a lot of effort into showing mayor moments in the civil rights movement like a replica of the bus where Rosa Park held her protest against racial segregation. The Freedom rides of 1961 and of course room 306 where Dr. Martin Luther king spend his last night before being assassinated. Everything is still the same as it was on April 4, 1968.
On the other side of the street stands the house where the alleged gunman James Earl Ray would have fired his gun that morning. The police found a gun with his handprints there. First he confessed to the murder but later he withdrew this statement. This is all part of the same museum and you can spend a lot of hours inside to take it all in. And when you come out you will be a changed person. I felt humble and small at that time.
Gibson Guitar Factory
I also wanted to take a tour through the Gibson Guitar factory but the Civil Rights Museum took all my time that day. During the tour they explain how they make the world famous Gibson Guitars. I only took a quick look inside the gift store and the sight of all these guitars was really cool to see.
My bicycle tour also took me past the great Mississippi river. You will get a great view from the river and at the docks you can see the big steamboats which can take you for a trip over the river. I did not do this but it was a great sight.
One day is enough to see all major attractions in Memphis but with one or two more day you can experience them all. The perfect weekend getaway. I had a blast in Memphis and afterwards I took the bus to St. Louis to emcee at the FLL World Festival.