Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Home sweet home

Beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder. And so it is with Graceland, the imposing, 18-room mansion in Memphis which the King of Rock ‘n Roll bought in 1957 for himself and his parents. It was rather a change after a childhood of meagre homes in his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, and rooming houses and public housing in downtown Memphis.

The surprise – for me anyway – in visiting Graceland in its manicured hectares amid paddocks with grazing horses, set apart from its sprawling, associated theme-park museum, is how homely it is. I had been imagining expansive rooms with soaring ceilings and sweeping staircases down which grand entrances could be made. But no. At best a couple of chandeliers, a staircase of almost modest proportions, dining and lounge rooms of generous size, but nothing opulent. And then the more casual rooms – nothing stingy there but, let’s say, of singular taste. Elvis, or someone in the family, obviously was a fan of monkeys.

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Matching wall and ceiling paper for the pool room.

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Monkeys feature in the living rooms.

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Well, not every family home has a shooting range. 

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Graceland’s back garden. 

In all Graceland is a family home rather than the home of a man who could have bought anything. Which he did in some cases including a passenger airliner-sized aircraft as well as a private jet. They’re on display at the theme-park across the road from Graceland along with endless other memorabilia, theatres, shops and eateries. I know a few blokes who would give anything to have some of the cars!

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Keeping the family together. 


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She has a dream

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Deja vue..the Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

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The fateful second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. 

Standing outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis evokes a strong sense of deja vue. So many times has the tragic scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination on that second-floor balcony been replayed since that deadly day on 4 April 1968 that the now-spruced-up fifties-style lodging is one of the most recognisable buildings in the United States. These days the former accommodation for coloured people visiting Memphis in the era of segregation is the National Civil Rights Museum creating a focal point for the American civil rights movement and steadfastly promoting its tumultuous history.

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One-woman protest, Jacqueline Smith. 

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Not going anywhere soon. 

While more than 1 million visitors have gone through the museum’s doors since its establishment in 1991 not all approve of its existence. For all that time former desk clerk and tenant at the motel, Jacqueline Smith, has staged a one-woman protest against what she see as the antithesis of the Martin Luther King dream. Her aim is to relocate the museum and see the Lorraine Motel transformed into a living testimony to Dr King’s acclaimed dream.

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Jacqueline Smith claims the gentrification of the downtown area of the birthplace of the blues has put it beyond the reach of many African Americans. She thinks Dr King would be happier if the legacy of his death provided shelter for the homeless, assistance for the needy, care for the elderly and infirm, and help for the unemployed and those with drug and alcohol addictions. She says the $27 million “wasted” renovating the museum could have achieved this. Jacqueline has carried out her decades-long protest under a sun umbrella opposite the Lorraine Motel surrounded by trestles stacked with protest posters and newspaper clippings. And she has no plans of giving up anytime soon.


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Got my mojo working

Rock ‘n roll burst into my quiet, western Queensland world in the ‘50s when one of the boarding school contingent arrived home from the big smoke for  holidays sporting a Brylcreemed Fonzie-style hairdo, hot pink socks, narrow fluro tie and clicking his fingers to the sounds of Little Richard. My musical tastes were never the same again. Almost 60 years on I recalled those electric early days of rock while visiting Nashville, Tennessee, where I learned Little Richard was still alive and living in the top floor Hilton Hotel suite from where he can sometimes be seen on the balcony in his wheelchair. He retired just two years ago aged 81, a pretty good example of “keep on rockin” – also the title of a film of a 1969 Sweet Toronto Peace Festival Little Richard concert.

Nashville sits with New Orleans and Memphis in the Mojo Triangle, the compact slice of America’s south where country, rock ‘n roll, blues, jazz and zydeco miraculously emerged and mutated from a cultural stew of French-speaking Arcadians expelled from Canada by the British; Spanish and French national colonisers; Native Americans; African slaves; Caribbean migrants; and British, Irish and other European settlers. English and Irish fiddles and folk dances; African drums, rhythms and vocal harmonies; French accordions; European brass instruments;  American Indian chants; Latin rhythms and guitars; Caribbean cadences and voodoo practices; and the despair of the enslaved; melded into an amazing, diverse musical  mix. Then technology caught up with the music mid-20th Century and – boom! – the Mojo Triangle music industry erupted.

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One of the most celebrated recording studio in the world.

Nashville, or Music City, is today at the centre of the international popular music industry. A pleasant, laid-back metropolis its the epicentre of this world because of its aggregration of recording ancillary services and the best session musicians around. Visitors can feast on music memorabilia and history at attractions such as RCA’s Studio B, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Or those seeking retail therapy can head downtown to possibly the biggest selection of cowboy boot shops in the world, with lots of buy-one-pair-get-two-free deals.

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The piano that has recorded platinum hits than almost any other. 

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Some of Studio B’s famous clients. 

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Famous Hall of Famers.

New Orleans, the home of jazz and zydeco – a blend of French Creole, blues, R & B and Indigenous American music – still bears the mental and physical scars of Hurricane Katrina 10 years down the track but the essence and spirit of the city remain.It renowned streets are busy with construction and restoration with locals boasting their precious heritage is guarded with new buildings only going up on vacant lots. The celebrated and colourful French Quarter, with famous haunts such as Bourbon Street, still jump with revelry at all hours, and live jazz combos entertain in French Quarter market cafes and restaurants.

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French Quarter New Orleans. 

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Another Famous jazz name. 

Memphis takes its responsibilities as the epicentre of blues and rock ‘n roll seriously. The Sun Studio tour tells the city’s story as the birthplace of rock ‘n roll and of the legendary and prescient Sam Phillips, a local 1950s DJ who recognised an opportunity when he saw, or rather heard, one. Sun Studio is best known for the so-called “Million-Dollar Quarter”, a recording of an impromptu jam session in 1956 by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Today they’d probably be known as “The Billion-Dollar Quartet”. The famed Gibson guitar factory reminds of the brand’s pivotal place in blues and rock while fabled Beale Street remains at the heart of the action as a pedestrian mall lined with clubs, in particular the recently departed B.B. King’s Blues Club, a fitting reminder of the king of the blues. Memphis was also saw the assassination of Martin Luther King and is the home of Gracelands.

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Birth of the Blues

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Sun Studios. 

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Recreation of  50’s recording studio at Sun Studios.

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King BB’s Blues Club. 

 


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Ol’ man river

The Mississippi River has dispensed its largesse to native and colonising Americans through millennia as it snakes almost 4000 km through 10 US states like a giant serpent.  Springing to life from Lake Itasca in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, the eulogised Ol’ Man River finally disperses itself across the low-lying lands of Louisiana, the North American continent’s largest drainage system, discharging its waters into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans.

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Mississippi at New Orleans..

It’s not until you experience the sheer size of the Mississippi that the penny drops on why it was so pivotal to the development of the states it traversed, especially the southern states. A sinuous, aqueous super highway it offered fledgling settlements the perfect pre-automobile trans-state thoroughfare for agricultural, manufactured and human cargo, especially the crop which made the south vastly wealthy, cotton. It boosted communication, encouraged exploration and its rich gifts of thick silt deposits supported agriculture. And that’s not to mention the cultural gifts spawned by the lives of those who lived there, either voluntarily or otherwise. After a recent visit to the lands of the Mississippi and to New York I’m full bottle on “blue bayous” and driving “Chevvies to the levy”, nods to its French-inheritance, below-sea-level elevation, location on the Atlantic hurricane corridor (think Katrina).

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…and at Baton Rouge…

Such is the size of the Mississippi it promoted a number of significant ports along its banks including at New Orleans, the sixth largest port in the US based on volume of cargo; Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana; Memphis in Tennessee; and at Natchez, in Mississippi State. The cotton trade made possible by the Mississippi – and given a major boost of course by slavery – created fabulously wealthy plantation owners parading their prosperity in Gone With the Wind-style mansions. Many splendid examples of grand antebellum architecture remain adding to the current-day charms of this part of the United States.

 

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..and Memphis and Natchez.

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Down on the (Jean Lafitte) Bayou, near New Orleans.

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Bayou air boat.

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Bayou friend.

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Antebellum splendour, New Orleans….

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And historic Stanton Hall at Natchez…

Coincidentally Ol’ Man River was one of the items on the program at a tribute concert to African Americans’ contribution to opera and the classics at Lincoln Centre on the night before my departure. Bravo!