Labor Day Lowdown: The Memphis Music & Heritage Festival and More
If you fell from the sky and were lucky enough to land on the corner of South Main and Beale in downtown Memphis, your senses could guide you. Feel the surge of crowds/music/neon lights? That’s the Beale Street Entertainment District, just east. Hear the trolley rumbling? It’s likely headed south (to the South Main Historic District). Look west and you’ll get an eyeful of the bluff dropping down to the Mississippi River.
Using my Memphis-style orienteering, you’ll know north by process of elimination. But I’m asking you to call on your sixth sense here, too, because where we’re going isn’t always as obvious as the other icons our compass has pointed to.
It’s the Center for Southern Folklore and it sits about a block-and-a-half north (northeast, technically) of our origin in a small storefront at 123 South Main Street.
The Center store is open every day. Some of those days are relatively quiet. I like those for thumbing through the old photographs and show bills the store sells (imagine black-and-white stills of farms and front porches mixed with vintage-colorful posters promoting B.B. King at erstwhile juke joints).
Still, I describe the store as relatively quiet because I’m not sure a place that looks like a piece of folk art come to life can ever be called soft-spoken. The décor is color and Christmas lights and chicken-scratch and, like a picture in a picture, it’s stacked with works of folk art for sale. The menu is just as colorful (chase greens and cornbread with a MoonPie Sundae). And just you wait for someone to take the stage.
In my visits to the Center, I’ve heard Randal Morton make the banjo sound beautiful. I’ve witnessed Hope Clayburn play two wind instruments at the same time. I’ve watched people gather as Theo Dasbach played his bluesy keyboard on the sidewalk. All for free – ‘til I decided to throw a tip in the musician’s bucket or buy a CD.
Now that you know what it is and where to find it, put these Center events on your calendar:
Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, Sept. 1-2: The Center’s 26th annual festival is expected to draw tens of thousands of attendees with its wall-to-wall line-up across five stages along South Main Street. You can hear anything from rockabilly to rap including headliner Denise LaSalle’s blues vocals, Darrell Petties’ gospel and Star & Micey’s folksy pop (which just landed the group on Paste magazine’s list of “12 Tennessee Bands You Should Listen to Now”). You can watch cooking or dance demos, including Memphis jookin’ (watch what is perhaps the most viral example of that here); listen to a talk by Memphis music master Joyce Cobb; meet and buy from craftspeople and let the kids get creative in an area just for them.
Ongoing concerts: Currently, the Center is producing a series of Thursday, Friday and Saturday night concerts, but you never know when live music will pop up here. Call 901-525-3655 or check the Center’s calendar and Facebook page for updates. (While you’re at the Center, say hello to Judy Peiser. She’s probably the one reminding you to tip the musician(s), but it was her documentaries on Delta culture that helped found the Center, and its now extensive multimedia archive, in 1972.)
Bonus: If you read my piece on Celebrating Elvis beyond Elvis Week, check out 50+ Years with Elvis: Betty Harper at the Center for Southern Folklore. Harper, a Nashville-based artist, renders Elvis so realistically, you’ll think you’re looking at photographs. Harper has more than 100 pieces on display at the Center through Oct. 19.