With frequent cruises to and from Memphis, we’ve noticed that the newcomers are often as enthusiastic, if not more so, than those who have spent their lives in this distinctive community. What engenders such passion? There are many reasons, ranging from traditions such as the march of the ducks at the Peabody Hotel, the many varieties of barbeque found throughout downtown, the presence of the mighty Mississippi River, and Elvis’ sprawling Graceland just south of the city. However, the one area that everyone flocks to time and time again is legendary Beale Street. This is the area where the blues was nurtured and dreams come true.
The street itself runs for nearly two miles through downtown and to the riverfront where a brand new cruise terminal and public space was built just a few years ago. Beale Street’s place in the history of Memphis, and its barbeque joints and blues clubs have made it hugely popular with both locals and visitors and it is often a hub for celebrations, street fairs and concerts. Guests sailing on the American Queen usually make a beeline for Beale Street to soak in the atmosphere. Since we offer a complimentary pre-cruise hotel night in the embarkation city for each voyage as part of the cruise fare, sailings from Memphis are particularly popular.
Beale Street’s history goes back only to 1841 when the street was named by developer Robertson Topp to honor a military hero of the era. The street’s proximity to the Mississippi River made it an ideal location for merchants who served the burgeoning steamboat trade. Over time, the area saw entertainers and musicians arrive to provide amusement for the steamboat passengers and crews and it became a well-known stop for traveling black musicians. It seemed Memphis’ trajectory was onward and upward until the city was hit by yellow fever so savagely that it was almost depopulated. But where there is tragedy there is often opportunity and Robert Church, who reportedly became the first black millionaire in the South, bought up large tracts of land on and around Beale Street. The Orpheum, known originally as the Grand Opera House, opened in 1890 and nine years later Church created the immodestly named Church Park. At this point, music became the lifeblood of Memphis. An enormous auditorium in the park was the epicenter for blues performers and Beale Street began to develop a truly unique identity.
With the opening of Church Park in 1899, Beale Street entered the 20th century as a cultural center complete with stores, cafes, fine restaurants and countless clubs and bars. Unlike many cities with similar concentrations of amusements, a number of Beale Street’s establishments were under the proud ownership and management of African-Americans. And this is where the rich history of Beale Street comes into play. Ida B. Wells was the owner and editor of a Beale Street-based newspaper called Free Speech which preached an anti-segregationist message, a rather bold move for a city in the South. If you know your history then you know the name Ida B. Wells; she went on to co-found the NAACP. If you’re a historian, then you also know about the Beale Street Baptist Church, a structure dating back to the Civil War that played a role in the fledgling civil rights movement.
But, above all else, Beale Street is famous for the blues. Music lovers know that William Christopher Handy, W.C. Handy for short, is widely acknowledged as the “Father of the Blues.” Handy found his niche in Memphis initially as a music teacher for Memphis Mayor Thornton’s Knight of Pythias Band after being recommended by Booker T. Washington. The blues was born.
A campaign song written by Handy in the early 1900s was eventually known as “The Memphis Blues” and in 1916 he wrote a blues standard called “Beale Street Blues.” Unfortunately, Beale Street was actually formally known as Beale Avenue at the time, but the song became so popular and influential that the city decided to change the thoroughfare’s moniker from avenue to street to ensure the musical association was recognizable to all. For the next generation, blues and jazz greats flocked to Memphis. B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon and many others all got their start on Beale Street as a unique style of music dubbed the Memphis Blues took root. By the 1930s, Beale Street was recognized as the birthplace of the blues and Wikipedia notes that a book about the rise of the blues, called Beale Street: Where the Blues Began, became the “first book by a black author to be advertised in the Book-of-the-Month Club News.”
In 1966, a portion of the street became a National Historic Landmark and by 1977 Congress designated Beale Street as the “Home of the Blues” with an official act. Though Beale Street was rundown at the time, it is now the shining jewel of Memphis’ downtown necklace. The American Queen Steamboat Company has a number of voyages that either begin or end in Memphis. Come find out for yourself what makes Beale Street the epicenter of the blues.