In the rural communities of the Mississippi Delta, daily life was a mixture of hard work, economic exploitation, segregation, deep religious faith, and music. Music echoed and led the rhythms of work, lent comfort, and embodied hopes and dreams. Mechanization, agricultural chemicals, and government policies destroyed the centuries-old cycle of planting, plowing, chopping, and picking-leaving an entire class of people without work. The rural refugees who found a home in Memphis sowed the seeds of what would become, by mid-century, a musical and cultural revolution. In the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum's "Rural Culture" gallery, musical icons dirtied their hands in the fields long before the studios.
Blues, country, and gospel - the music that thrived in the Delta - formed the unique palette of musical genres that unexpectedly came together to start a musical revolution. These musical traditions of the rural South, including work songs, ballads, and gospel hymns, carried the history of southern culture from one generation to the next. Many people produced their own music, exchanging techniques, lyrics, and melodies among races and classes. Recorded music also had a presence in rural life. Some people bought Victrolas and hoarded records, others nursed battery-powered radios to coax in programs like the Grand Ole Opry.
Each of the necessary musical components began to merge together among the streets and juke joints of the River City. For some displaced sharecroppers, Memphis held the promise of jobs in construction, on the riverfront, and in the mills and warehouses of King Cotton. Although the city was segregated through the 1950s, black Memphians found the services of doctors, bankers, and merchants along Beale Street - the same thoroughfare which was alive with their music at night. The music of Memphis crossed the color line. While Memphis was socially segregated, airwaves, recordings, and live performances brought the city’s music to its people - black and white.
Made Possible Through the Generous Support of the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation.
Musicians who lacked money, influence, and agents got their chances at small record companies like Sun Records. Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun, recorded blues, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll unknowns from B.B. King to Roy Orbison. In July, 1954, Phillips recorded Elvis Presley. The Memphis sound redefined the national and international music scenes. By 1955, rock ‘n’ roll was a national phenomenon. Rock ‘n’ roll celebrated youth, good times & sexuality. Young people claimed it as a culture all their own and reflected its energy in their dress and language.
Labels like STAX, HI and Satellite recruited musical artists from the black community, and some of its stars literally walked in off the streets. Memphis music was a product of collaboration - and sometimes tension - between black and white musicians. Soul music embodied African-American cultural identity and aspirations in the volatile 1960s and became an important voice of expressing black pride, and demanding political change. Just as white teenagers expressed themselves through their speech, dress, and rock ‘n’ roll, soul was a part of a larger identity for African-Americans. Soul music changed from popular entertainment to a vehicle for political expression and community activism.
In Memphis, as in many cities throughout the nation, the 1950s and 60s were years of turbulent change. Ideas and music, once revolutionary, are now foundations of institutions. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a nation through a civil rights revolution, the music that erupted from the streets and studios of Memphis led a cultural, social and civil rights revolution of its own. The Memphis sound interacted with and reflected the city’s dynamics, and made an indelible imprint upon world culture.
Made Possible Through the Generous Donation of First Tennessee Foundation
The accomplishments of Memphis' many performers, recorders and production pioneers did more than put this river city on the musical map. Their groundshaking contributions led a harmonious civil rights movement which integrated the music industry, inspired many of the world's leading musicians through today, influenced almost every known musical genre, and changed the cultural complexion of the world forever. The Bravo Gallery salutes the influence and the individuals who shook the globe!
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