July 13, 2008

Explore the Roots of America’s Music in the Birthplace of Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll

By Sue Story Truax, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 13--MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Listen. Can you hear it? African-American soul and gospel blend with white country music to create many of your favorite songs.

These musical roots come alive in picture and sound at the Rock 'n' Soul Museum here. It presents rock's history in a social context, providing a natural springboard for discussion. Plan enough time to read and listen.

Rockabilly singer Carl Perkins once said: "There's a rhythm in the air around Memphis. There always has been. I don't know what it is, but it's magic."

Part of that magic in Memphis was the merging of different musical traditions, making this city the logical site for the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. It's a place that traces this merging of the two genres.

Rock 'n' Soul is a history museum, but lessons are presented such that you won't realize you're learning history.

Did you know that music in the rural South once was tied to its agricultural calendar? While working side by side in the fields, black and white sharecroppers sang to help the time pass. They also learned one another's songs.

After the harvest, segregation separated the lives of blacks and whites. Be prepared to discuss with your children the images of "Colored Only" signs.

Memphis became a crossroads where black and white musical forms merged and began to find social acceptance. A new term emerged: rock 'n' roll.

The story goes that when 18-year-old Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records in Memphis, he was asked whom he sounded like. His now-famous answer: "I don't sound like nobody."

Indeed he didn't.

Elvis was an important turning point for American music. He blended soul, country and gospel traditions in a way no one had heard before.

Sun and Stax, two legendary recording studios, thrived in Memphis during this time. African-American and white musicians whose musical knowledge was similar began making music together. Black and white musicians openly worked side by side.

Perkins, son of a white sharecropper, knew the musical forms of both races and helped build the bridge.

Some things to watch for at the museum:

--Listen carefully to hear the instrumental differences between a song played as country music and the same song played as soul music.

--Read why ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones each give a nod to black musician Furry Lewis.

--Find out why the Beatles said that without Elvis, there would have been no Beatles.

--Get pumped listening to Jerry Lee Lewis singing "Great Balls of Fire."

--Move with the rhythm of Perkins singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

--See a colorful Western outfit that belonged to Charlie Rich, a country performer who recorded at Sun Records.

--Mouth the words as the Carter Family sings "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

--Smile at the large hat with its dangling $1.98 price tag that was country entertainer Minnie Pearl's trademark.

--Wonder how this great music was ever created when you view the now outdated and simplistic recording studio mixing boards used at Sun and Stax.

--Be amazed at Isaac Hayes' diamond-encrusted watch with its grand piano-shaped lid that opens to show the time. Hayes was a longtime Stax songwriter before recording on his own.

After the museum, you can extend your music journey by listening to live performances at nearby Beale Street clubs, visiting Graceland, the home of Elvis, and touring both Sun Studios and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Bring your appetite, too. Memphis serves some of the best food anywhere in America.

--Contact the writer: 444-1165, [email protected]

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