In the third and final episode of Beyond Beale's inaugural season, we learn about the lasting impact and modern iterations of the Memphis Country Blues Festival.
This podcast features interviews from, in order of appearance, Natalie Wilson, Henry Nelson, Augusta Palmer, Chris Wimmer, Ric Whitney, Robert Gordon, and Earl “the Pearl” Banks. Jimmy Crosthwait and "Daddy" Mack Orr have been featured in previous episodes of Beyond Beale. "Everybody Has a Place at the Shell" explores the impact and future of the Memphis Country Blues Festival, drawing on the historical context in "Diabolical and Revolutionary" and "Pretty Much Pure Gospel."
Emma Jane Hopper: Hello, and welcome back to Beyond Beale. As always, we’re coming to you from the Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes College, I’m your host, Emma Jane Hopper. This is our third and final full-length episode of our inaugural season covering the Memphis Country Blues Festival at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. If you haven’t listened to them yet, we highly recommend that you go back and listen to episode one and two. In episode one we talked about the historical context of the festival, in episode two we talked about the festival itself, and today we’re talking about its relevance to current events.
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Emma Jane Hopper: You’ll be hearing some new voices in this episode, including Natalie Wilson, who’s been the executive director of the Shell since January of 2019. She talked to us about the festival and its lasting impact.
Natalie Wilson: ….That to me is one the most impactful pieces of our history. I love everything about it. I think if you think about an event that was transformative in music during the civil rights movement, it was that…. it empowered north Mississippi blues artists from country, from the country, the core, and gave them a platform and space…. And I think it’s amazing that the Shell's history could be part of that, that the shell was the space it launched that.
Emma Jane Hopper: We’ve heard a few different interpretations of the festival’s importance over our season, but everyone agreed that it was special.. Henry Nelson, who went to the festival as a teen, commented on the uniqueness of it all.
Henry Nelson: ….You know, they that was. Unique in the sense that, you know, when all the other shows I saw at the Shell after that were rock shows the, you know, groups like Trapeze and Mountain and the Allman Brothers and some of the other ones, but there was nothing like the blues festival. However, also, years later, occasionally there would be one of the blues players who would be on stage, you know, just as a single performer, but not as a festival like that was that day, I think, about that time.
Emma Jane Hopper: Augusta Palmer, documentarian and daughter of the festival founder Robert Palmer, spoke of how casually it all started.
Augusta Palmer: ….considering that it only lasted for a few years and considering that it started out with such, you know, with with a 60 something dollars session check and a ball of hash. I think considering those those humble origins, that had a pretty huge impact.
Emma Jane Hopper: Chris Wimmer, one of the founders, complained about the city government’s neglect for the history of country blues.
Chris Wimmer: ….I go down to Beale Street and that's the saddest, shabbiest little, y'know, one or two block strip, with the same crap. And nothing has anything to do with old Beale Street. And still, people just flock to it, you know. I think, I think. I think if they had addressed it back then. I think the entire downtown area would be more vibrant and more vital than it is now. It's just now trying come back around for some development on South Main and a little bit up around the Pinch District and, and whatnot but... Memphis had no sense of history, and no sense of history, not just with music, but with, I mean with their architecture and everything…. They just really had no, no, no sense in the history or appreciation of its past.
Emma Jane Hopper: Mr. Wimmer told us that neglect has been racially motivated.
Chris Wimmer: And a lot of that has to do with. Because of the fact that a lot of its past did hinge on on black America. You know. W.C. Handy was the only Blues person with me growing up in the 50s, other than active players, you know, Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters and maybe in like that. But, you know, the only blues history ever mention by the city was W.C. Handy. And I just think that the downtown area could've been, could have been a much more vibrant and not had to spend, you know, 30, 40 years trying to play catch up now. You know, I mean, it just turned to, into a Ghost Town down there.
Emma Jane Hopper: While the festival began and ended in a politically contentious time, and its integration made a political statement, Dr. Palmer said the founders didn’t have any explicit, political intent.
Augusta Palmer: ….there is a real separation between the politicos, the people who were going and more political route and and the people who are more into culture. So definitely the organizers didn't see themselves as part of a political movement or as part of the civil rights movement. They were certainly in favor of every advance made by the civil rights movement. And now, in retrospect, I think talking them, they realized that what they were doing was a political act, but they thought of it as a cultural and artistic act. And that was important to them because I think they felt that the political arena was so fraught with corruption and lies and kind of irredeemable.
Emma Jane Hopper: The focus of the festival was always the music. Do you remember Ric Whitney, from episode one? He runs a talent management company and a music publishing company in LA. Believing it was still relevant in today’s political climate, he revived the festival with his cousin, Stephen Whitney, in 2017.
Ric Whitney: ….I think that obviously there was a lot of strife in the late 60s and to a large degree there is still continued racial disconnect happening now. And whether you're talking about movements to get the police to treat African-American and Latino Americans with more respect. Black Lives Matter movement, there's things that are still happening now that are extraordinarily important, where I think there is a need for a better understanding of how certain individuals have a perspective in life. And the civil rights period was certainly just that as well….
Emma Jane Hopper: The Civil Rights movement of the 60s was different from the Civil Rights movement going on today, though. Dr. Palmer said a major difference is in the vocabulary and awareness of white people.
Augusta Palmer: ….You know, now we have and talk about the idea of white privilege. And although white privilege was very much in action. And maybe white savior ism, to some extent at the blues festivals. People weren't really that aware of those concepts, that white people weren't really that aware of those concepts then. So, you know, that's that's an important that's an important aspect of the festival.
Emma Jane Hopper: A lot hasn’t changed, too. The racism inherent to our system of policing hasn’t seen much progress since the 60s. Mr. Nelson, for instance, got harassed by cops on the Rhodes College campus, then called Southwestern, just for being there while Black.
Henry Nelson: ….I had encounters with the police and they weren't physical encounters. They were just what do you call it, verbal and malicious and verbal. I had encounters at Rhodes College when I, it was an incredible culture of hippie and academics and and. When you call it just different, at Rhodes, there was there was a culture that I loved, I didn't attend school there, but I was on campus a lot. And, you know, there were parties and there were people that I used to hang out with there, who were poets, you know, and writers. And even for the black kids who were on campus, the the I don't even know if it was security or police. Even the security was prejudiced toward black kids on campus. And who was on the campus, you kind of had to become friends and known. It wasn't like you could just be on campus and be black.
Emma Jane Hopper: As much as the festival meant to the people there, it wasn’t reflective of the world around them.
Ric Whitney: ….I'm an African-American.
Emma Jane Hopper: That’s Mr. Whitney again.
Ric Whitney: And I know that there's a level of oppression and, frankly, disrespect that has happened for quite a long time. And I've felt it and experienced it personally in my life. ...I was born and raised in Memphis. I've got family lives in Memphis, but I no longer live in it... There's an affinity and love I have for the city... But that said...I could see people having a stigma because ...Memphis has been segregated for quite a while and there is a long history of that segregation. There's a long history that has to be overcome. I do think that the city has gotten better…
Emma Jane Hopper: It’s okay that the festival didn’t have an overarching impact on racism in Memphis, though. That wasn’t its purpose. They weren’t in it to make money or change the world, they just wanted to listen to some old, country blues legends play. Mr. Whitney said he wanted to keep that in mind for the new festival.
Ric Whitney: ….it wasn't about money. It wasn't about, you know, turning it into some sort of economic thing. It was like we want to present the music. And the cool part was that it was diverse in the presentation of it. And, you know, obviously it didn't stick in terms of being able to offer it year over year. But, you know, it spawned my cousin and I too look at this approach years later. And I think that in itself is also interesting.
Emma Jane Hopper: From the perspective of the Levitt Shell, Ms. Wilson said reaching all of Memphis is the venue’s biggest goal.
Natalie Wilson: We're also working with a national consultant that focuses on diversity, inclusion and equity and doing some real strategic planning around DI for the organization and for our community…. what equity is about is meeting people where they are that everyone: different abilities, different perspectives, everyone should be respected to where they are. We as a place like the shell should have something that supports them where they are, that they feel that they that they can be themselves and that they are valued by who they are, where they are, what they're innately, what their needs are….
Emma Jane Hopper: The Shell is a nonprofit, and it’s always been a community gathering place. Just like the Memphis Country Blues Festival gathered a diverse group of people from all over, Mr. Whitney’s revival aims to do the same thing.
Ric Whitney: ….it was just something where we saw it as an interesting opportunity to revitalize the festival, largely because we thought it was a way to bring people together. And music has always been a uniting force in that respect. And Memphis has a long history of the blues music… And we really just wanted to find an opportunity to use music, use the legacy of the Country Blues Festival to to do something that would be a kind of a galvanizing force. So we ultimately ended up revitalizing the festival in 2017 for the first time. That festival was held at the Levitt Shell…. The headliner for that festival was Reverend John Wilkins, who just recently passed, unfortunately, and he was obviously involved with the earlier festivals as well. So that was sort of a nice connection and through line between the late sixties festivals, and us doing it in 2017.
Emma Jane Hopper: Like his predecessors, Mr. Whitney and his cousin aren’t in it for the money. They’re in it for the music.
Ric Whitney: ….we're doing it in conjunction with the Shell. So to be frank, there's my cousin and I as the promoters here, we aren't making any money from this. This is more our love for the music here. We wanted to get it off the ground in the proper way.
Emma Jane Hopper: Another parallel to the 60s festival is the lack of city involvement. The Shell is privately funded, although it did partner with the city back in 2005 to do renovations.
Natalie Wilson: ….And I had always been a fan of the shell, was a friend on the lawn for years. And I would sit there and think, does my taxpayer dollars make all this possible? It's magic. And then I came in last year to realize everything about the shell is about local private investment, not taxpayer dollars. It's all local investors to believe in the work that we do and that now more than ever.
Emma Jane Hopper: That was Ms. Wilson. Despite its private funding, she said the Shell is open to all.
Natalie Wilson: Everybody has a place at the shell. Everybody has a voice at the shell. And we focus on a real diverse genre of music presented every year in making the performing arts accessible to everyone.
Emma Jane Hopper: The current version of the festival is free to attend, adding to this idea of accessibility. Mr. Whitney spoke about the changes they made for the summer of 2020 in light of the covid-19 pandemic.
Ric Whitney: We did the virtual festival most recently as a fundraiser for the Shell, just where people could donate from a chip standpoint back to the Shell and just help them with their continued operations. Ultimately, this is a tussle that we'd like to keep at the Shell just because it has a history there. So it's not to say that it may not change from in or from an economic standpoint in terms of how we present it in future iterations. But the goal would be that we keep it free for the fans and for people to be able to come out and continue to enjoy the music of the Shell….
Emma Jane Hopper: This online show may have reached more people than an in-person one. Despite the Shell’s efforts, Ms. Wilson said there are still roadblocks in the way of complete accessibility.
Natalie Wilson: Last year I met a mother. She has three children and she lives in Orange Mound. And she said, I've always wanted to come to the shell, she said, but one time I tried to come and I got off the bus on Poplar and I came to your concert and your concert was over at nine. I got back on the bus and half of my route was already turned off. It was already stopped. I couldn't get home.
Emma Jane Hopper: According to Ms. Wilson, racist federal policy has also dissuaded people from visiting the Shell, in a way that even the policy of the 60s didn’t.
Natalie Wilson: I have a board member, Marcos Villa, and we talk a lot about, you know, how the Latino community, Latinx Committee feels about, you know, going to public gathering spaces like parks because of ICE raids. You know, they come and they're terrified that something's gonna happen to their family when they come. And that's it, too. That's another example of we can't just say, you know, come to us, come to us. And then they don't know how to park. They're scared. They don't feel... Will they be welcome?
Emma Jane Hopper: Robert Gordon told us that the cultural divide of today is not unlike that of the original festival’s era.
Robert Gordon: ….a lot of this stuff is very comparable to the present political moment where people are living in disconnected realities, bubbles, you know, believing what they're told and not opening the door and going well, let's see….
Emma Jane Hopper: Ms. Wilson said that she hopes the Shell can play a part in healing that divide.
Natalie Wilson: We are a nonprofit public gathering space. I want to speak in love. That the messages on this shell were most important. That we are hurt. We are angry. We are divided. And we must come together. And that was most important. Not. We'll paint. We'll fix that. That was most important. People, our community is in need.
Ric Whitney: ….there is a dialog and an understanding that needs to happen. And it's important in terms of being able to bridge some of the things that have happened and getting people to better understand how to move forward and do things that are more egalitarian. When people are pressed, yes, you do see protest, you do see people stand up for their rights. And the odd part, I think, is that we had a spring with the George Floyd death, Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor, things that have happened in addition to sort of the feelings that happened with covid that I think gave people a moment to say, wait a minute, we need to really look at what's happening. And again, it wasn't that these things were new. These things have been happening for quite a while. It was just a moment, I think, where the confluence of all of it happening at once got people and sort of began a movement in a different way.
Emma Jane Hopper: That was Mr. Whitney. The Black Lives Matter movement he’s alluding to is an ongoing addition to the historical timeline of civil rights protests. While the original Memphis Country Blues Festival wasn’t a civil rights rally, its significance as an integrated event tells us a lot about Memphis in the 60s. The BLM protests of today tell us a lot about how little things have changed for Black Americans.
Augusta Palmer: I think it's a great place to start a conversation about civil rights and the cultural achievement of African-American artists and their huge influence on American music as a whole. But also on the possibility of those movements being kind of co-opted and absorbed into and take it up by the white mainstream and leaving African-Americans behind.
Emma Jane Hopper: Dr. Palmer spoke to us about the original Memphis Country Blues Festival’s place in the history of the fight for civil rights. One problem the festival perpetuated was the idea that Black music is source material for young, white artists. In this narrative, Booker White and Furry Lewis were “quote-unquote” paving the way for white people to base rock n’ roll off of, ignoring Black rock n’ rollers and young, Black blues artists.
Augusta Palmer: ….as white people, first of all, I think we need to acknowledge our privilege and. Think about what we can do to change our society, to make it more equitable. But that also we need to be able to come to a conversation and be willing to talk across and work through cultural difference. As well as power, differences.
Emma Jane Hopper: Ms. Wilson echoed this idea of unity through both conversation and the acknowledgement of white privilege.
Natalie Wilson: To say, you don't know me, I don't know you, but I want to know you. I know I'm a white woman and I and I can't I have a white privilege that, you know, I know I do. And I want to use my privilege for good. And how can I help you? How can I build a relationship with you? How can I listen to what you want to say?
Emma Jane Hopper: Part of The Shell’s mission is to teach younger generations about Memphis’ rich music history.
Natalie Wilson: ... we would have a music educator that would be building relationships in these neighborhoods and making, you know, space where we would go then building a curriculum around music heritage and how the shell's part of that. And what is, what is music heritage? What is the importance of music education for children showcasing children, families, what music is about, different genres of music, making it fun, accessible, make it family friendly, healthy, wholesome.
Emma Jane Hopper: The coverage of this history isn’t perfect. Important figures and details are still left out of the narrative. That’s not to say that people wouldn’t be interested in it if they had access to it, according to Mr. Whitney.
Ric Whitney: ….I do know that there is a little bit of a disconnect. And I think that there are venues, there's promoters, there's the... Memphis has a rich history of music. And I think that there's an opportunity for the city to be able to capitalize on that and present Memphis in an even greater light, particularly as it relates to music and entertainment…. I would personally love to be able to see the city present music in a greater light where people found it. Oh, my gosh, I'm coming to Memphis because there is a fantastic music scene there and there's a fantastic festival scene there. And I can't wait to come in and spend the weekend and from a tourism perspective, I think it would be a huge boon for the city.
Emma Jane Hopper: Earl “the Pearl” Banks, a blues legend himself, spoke to the importance of the genre, even if it doesn’t pay well.
Earl “the Pearl” Banks: If you leave the blues, you leave the blues you ain't got nothing. This stuff, this rap stuff they got. They making money off of that stuff. But you, you can't make that kind of money off of no blues.
Emma Jane Hopper: Mr. Nelson also said that country blues remains an underrecognized and underrewarded genre.
Henry Nelson: ….You know, I think this was I would even wonder today, how are the how how prosperous country blues artists really are? Very few, you know, Valerie June is an exception, but she is one of, she is one of that generation, I don't know if you know who Valerie is. But Valerie June, I think she she's probably the fifth generation of country blues artist who's really making a living at it….
Emma Jane Hopper: One way we as music listeners may be able to rectify that is through conscientious consumership, according to Dr. Palmer.
Augusta Palmer: ….we can think about, you know, where we spend our dollars and who we want them to go to and and think about the inequality and the the abuse of a lot of performers, blues performers, African-American performers in general over many decades in the music industry.
Emma Jane Hopper: Private individuals have sway beyond the voting booth. The phrase “vote with your wallet” comes to mind. That’s something to consider, especially when it seems like all of the landmark legislation of the 60s hasn’t amounted to much in practice. For a lot of Black Americans, it feels like nothing’s changed substantially since then.
Henry Nelson: ….It's like I never trusted what and I still don't actually sometimes what will happen because of the skin I'm in. It's unfortunate, that's so disappointing, you know. At this point in life.
Emma Jane Hopper: That’s Mr. Nelson.
Henry Nelson: ….but I do have hope. Because it's your generation and and black and white and Asian and whatever, who whose experience hopefully is one being witness of what has happened and knowing that you have the potential to change how the world is, we literally can change the world. We believed that too, and I think we did to some degree.
Emma Jane Hopper: The Memphis Country Blues Festival was important, but what made it important depends on who you ask. From far away, you might see it as a protest or an intentional act of civil disobedience. Up close, however, it was a hippie gathering that broke boundaries without a grand purpose other than music. It’s easy to superimpose a higher meaning onto the past, though, and I think a lot of people want that higher meaning. You might want to think everything has a predestined purpose and a clear path building up to now, but in reality, history’s pretty chaotic. Just like the festival.
Emma Jane Hopper: Whether or not the statement they made was an accident, the festival was still integrated in a time most venues in Memphis weren’t. It showcased a significant part of the Memphis music legacy, the country blues, in a city where the government was disinterested in promoting its Black past. That’s why we chose to feature the festival in our first season: the goals of the Memphis Country Blues Society then were not unlike our own now.
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Emma Jane Hopper: Thank you so much for tuning in to the final episode of this season of Beyond Beale, the Mike Curb Institute’s Memphis music history podcast. Next season we’ll be talking about women in the Memphis punk scene, so be sure to follow the Curb Institute and the Dredge Zine on Instagram as well as the Beyond Beale instagram to be the first to know when that comes out. Thank you to the interviewees featured in today’s program, in order of appearance, Natalie Wilson, Henry Nelson, Augusta Palmer, Chris Wimmer, Ric Whitney, Robert Gordon, and Earl “the Pearl” Banks. Thanks also to Jimmy Crosthwait and “Daddy” Mack Orr who have been featured in previous episodes. Today’s episode was written and produced by myself and Elijah Matlock with help from our faculty advisor Dr. J. Tyler Fritts. Elijah is also our audio engineer. The original music for today’s program was created by Cam Napier. Thank you to Betsy John and Shaliz Barzani for our gorgeous cover art. I’m your host, Emma Jane Hopper, see you soon and stay safe.