Excellent study of an iconic Southern place and the fraught, violent history behind it.
Many Americans have heard of W.C. Handy, but more as a practitioner of the blues than the serious student and entrepreneur that he was. Still more will likely have heard of Beale Street, the Memphis road that has put its mark on musical history—ethnic history, as well. Lauterbach (The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll, 2011) opens with a race riot immediately following the Civil War, when it became directly clear to the African-Americans of the city that nothing had changed. The author locates the center of his tale in the beating heart of a light-skinned black man, Bob Church (“Church had dark, straight hair, bear-greased and parted, intense brown eyes, and beige skin. Nothing about him betrayed African heritage”), who surveyed the scene and organized his own city within a city. Not that Church was, strictly speaking, a philanthropist or altruist: The empire he founded included brothels, music halls that saw “the Memphis debut of the debauched dance known as the can-can,” and, in time, places where a man could buy all the cocaine, guns and whiskey he desired. The tightening racial oppression of Jim Crow, coming to full force in the 1890s, “had the somewhat paradoxical effect of strengthening black communities,” writes the author, and it was into this thriving milieu that Handy, “moving between worlds,” arrived and began to do his musicological work, setting the stage for the emergence of Memphis as a musical crossroads and center of jazz, blues, and, later, soul and R&B. In charting its rise, Lauterbach adds to the rich library devoted to the “old, weird America” established by writers such as Michael Ventura, Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus.
Beale Street is mostly a tourist trap now, but it was a place of “whorehouses, saloons, and bullet holes” not so long ago. By Lauterbach’s illuminating account, the past was more fun—or at least more interesting.