This month, Omnivore Recordings reissued a forgotten Memphis classic, a kind of conceptual compilation called Beale Street Saturday Night, produced by Jim Dickinson in 1979. To celebrate the rerelease of this masterpiece, the Oxford American is pleased to present Dickinson’s “The Search for Blind Lemon,” from our 2013 Tennessee Music Issue.
I don’t know when I first heard the music in my head. I don’t remember not hearing it. Sometimes in the morning it would be the first thing I heard, shutting out the sounds of reality—the traffic outside the window and the people moving around. My mother would sit at the upright piano, playing and singing song after song off old pieces of sheet music from her past. I searched these songs for meaning. Like the cowboy songs of Gene Autry and Red River Dave, each song told a story of a remote place and time.
An exerpt from The Screening Room: Family Pictures.
“Did you know how your grandfather M.A.’s heart attack really happened?” Lennie says to me, smiling slyly and sipping her bourbon. “What do you mean?” “Exertion, bien sur. The best kind. And not with your grandmother.” Lennie lights a new cigarette and wriggles her stocking covered toes, poised to let fly another story. Cousins nudge forward in their reclining chairs. Someone moans from the pool, the next generation, and Lennie exhales a cool cloud of blue smoke.
Roland Janes, 1933-2013
If you ever visited the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis, you would know Roland Janes. He was there managing the studio, engineering sessions, greeting the world, every day more or less for the last thirty years, working with everyone from Charlie Rich to Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia and Al Kapone to Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, and anyone who might wander in off the street looking to cut a “personal” record.
That’s why pop music is the art for our time: It’s an art of crap. And not in a self-conscious sense, not like a sculpture made of garbage and shown at the Whitney, which is only a way of saying that "low" materials can be made to serve the demands of "high" art. No, pop music really is crap. It’s about transcending through crap. It’s about standing there with your stupid guitar, and your stupid words, and your stupid band, and not being stupid.
Maybe the least expected of the factors that went into making ska in those years, and the one many would argue that most nearly approached it in sound, leading most directly to its birth, came not from Jamaica at all, or even from the Caribbean, but from West Tennessee, and more specifically from South Memphis, and more specifically than that, from the band called the Beale Streeters, and most specifically of all from the right hand of their pianist and sometime singer-songwriter, a Memphis native named Rosco Gordon.
I was twenty-three and had been working at WDIA for one year, as long as the station had been on the air. Unexpectedly, Bert asked me to move a little closer to him on the seat. I edged over and waited but he didn’t speak. After a long moment he whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “What do you think of programming for Negro people?”
The author reflects on his all-consuming obsession with the White Stripes: "But now—a husband and father of two young boys, a mortgage holder soon to be bushwhacked by forty? Is it not shameful, obsession in this strata of life? Shameful because irresponsible. Irresponsible because every real obsession is an expensive, fatiguing time-suck. How does a grown man come to obsess over a rock band unless something fundamental is lacking in his psyche and soul?"
Reverend King and Elvis and Mr. Crump are just our famous ghosts, the public phantoms we share. Like everyone else, Memphians have their own private ghosts. Mine is tall and skinny and bald and wears black glasses—the same ones that are back in style.