When I Did Go Down To The Delta: Summer 2017 in Nashville, Clarksdale and Memphis

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In 2014, I contributed a chapter to the edited volume Sites of Popular Music Heritage called ‘Why I Didn’t Go Down To The Delta.’ This summer I did the opposite and headed off to the South, primarily to put on a conference called New Perspectives on Elvis at the University of Memphis on 21 August. The event was designed to academically commemorate the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s passing. Since I had to fly out on 16 August itself, I missed the opportunity to pass comment. Two staff from the BBC emailed the day before, asking me to speak on The World This Week (on the World Service) andTalking Business (on BBC World TV). I am always disappointed by how little notice the media give academics, but I had other things on my mind…

My first stop was with my colleague Robbie Fry from Vanderbilt University, who is hosting the IASPM-US conference in Nashville next spring. 

Robbie Fry at the New Perspectives on Elvis Conference.

Robbie does interesting work on music heritage tourism and the notion of ‘going backstage’ at sites of music performance and tourism. His recent book on the subject is calledPerforming Nashville: Music Tourism and Country Music’s Main Street.
The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
The first day was spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame and at RCA Studio B in Nashville, the power house studio that gave birth to many of Elvis’s hits. In the next part of our trip, Robbie and I headed down to the Delta, and stayed at Morgan Freeman’s live music venue, Ground Zero, a touristic ‘home of the blues.’ 
Ground Zero in Clarksdale.

We saw Robbie’s friend Heather Crosse play with her very accomplished blues trio. 

Looking at the designer graffiti on the walls, I was struck by the ‘punk’ quality of Ground Zero, the way in which it had deliberately been made as squat-like as possible, as if taking abandonment and turning it into an artistic statement. Then I realized that musicians are marketed to us as the ultimate gentifiers, people who colonize particular territories and imbue them with value, alchemically converting spaces of past misery to places of pleasure.
Clarksdale has the feel of a bombed out city, but pockets of hipster activity are coming back. They sit oddly in the searing heat with the poverty of the area. The place is a ghost town that occasionally poses as a theme park for blues tourists.
Abe’s Bar-B-Q at the famous crossroads in Clarksdale.
One of the things we did was eat BBQ at the famous crossroads, the location where Robert Johnson supposedly made his deal with the devil. The food is a regional delicacy in the South.

After Clarksdale we hit Memphis and found tickets for the Tri-State Blues Festival, a modern-day equivalent to the WDIA Review. The headliner was Bobby Rush – a unique entertainer.

Where the audience at Ground Zero had been white and the support staff African American, here the equation was reversed. The next day, however, we attended an event with a more mixed audience: we went to see the Reverend Al Green give his Sunday service.

The Reverend Al Green gospel preaching.
What fascinated me was the way that Green made the sacred and secular work together, framing the international tourist constituent of his audience as a reflection of the miracle of God’s love: here were people sent from all over the world to bring money to his church, so it could continue its mission. Al Green’s performance was so intense that at one point he had to sit down. It was amazing. 

Finally, the day of the conference came round. We were treated a range of presentations marking the 40th anniversary of Elvis’s passing, presented by 14 scholars from places as far afield as Denmark and Canada, including two full professors and a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Cambridge. A list of papers presented on for the day can be found here.
As one colleague said, the idea of finding an ‘new perspectives’ on such a famous icon seemed a bit odd. After all, hadn’t everything already been said? Actually, it hadn’t. Despite Presley’s continued global presence, research has emerged at a mere trickle in recent years. In Memphis, we discussed everything from what was in Elvis’s own record collection to his posthumous music heritage. On balance, the papers from America seemed more ‘fannish,’ while those from Europe were more keen to frame Elvis as a not-so-secret agent in the Cold War. One delegate emailed me afterwards and said, “I came home telling friends and family how interesting and distinct the papers were.” 

The conference was held at the University of Memphis, which has a history of previous connections with Elvis Presley including the hosting of occasional related events. Dr Amanda Nell Edgar and her team did an excellent job of arranging the day on site. 
Mark Duffett and Amanda Nell Edgar (photo taken by Landon Palmer).
Amanda said my work in putting together the conference “was valuable for the University of Memphis community as well as for scholarship on Elvis and popular culture in general.” She added, “I particularly appreciated the opportunity for one of our graduate students to participate in the conference, as it gave him a chance to meet a variety of scholars from outside the Communication discipline who are working in areas similar to his own research. Additionally, the conference was exceptionally diverse in terms of the international perspectives represented by the speakers. Particularly for conferences in the American mid-South, it is rare to have scholars representing so many different regions. The opportunity to explore a popular culture icon like Elvis from such a variety of disciplinary and international perspectives was valuable, and I appreciated the opportunity to contribute to this project.” Her faculty also participated, with both Amanda and one of her postgraduates presenting. By the end of the day, we were also joined by the Dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts, as well as more local students. 

After the conference, some of us decamped to Memphis’ famous Peabody hotel, where, in the name of scholarly exploration, I tried the ‘Velvet Elvis’ cocktail.

What was interesting was the conversations that were held back during the academic event – those based on music taste and fan passion rather than rational argument – soon came to the fore. It was a fitting end to a great day of discussion. 

Unfortunately, things went slightly amiss for me from there. First, our tour guide missed me off the list on a visit to Tupelo the next day, so I went to Graceland instead. Since my last visit in 2011, the complex across the road from the mansion has more than doubled in size and currently houses exhibits on Sam Phillips, Elvis in the army, and the Graceland archives, as well as the older displays of his cars and clothes. They have also added an exhibit on the clothes of other inspired by or associated with Elvis, including the jumpsuits worn by KISS. Though Elvis was never a successful songwriter, Graceland is, of course, framed as the text that he wrote. In the basement, the amount of people walking through the mansion was so high that staff acted as human traffic wardens, controlling the foot fall between different rooms. Elvis’s racquetball court, at the end of the tour route, has been restored to its original function after being used for years to house his gold records and jumpsuits. Since I visited just after a significant Elvis week, the meditation garden was festooned with tributes from fan clubs in Brazil and other places. It was a consolation for missing Tupelo, but I was still disappointed as I hadn’t visited Elvis’s home town since 1997. My second piece of bad luck was a delay of over six hours coming back to Manchester. It was a slightly awkward end to a inspiring visit.