Walking With My Feet 10 Feet Off the Beale

by Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In his 1991recording Walking In Memphis, Marc Cohn reflects on the history of the blues.  The references to the general history of this music form are straightforward but arranged in such a way to draw upon the ghosts of the past.  Cohn’s blue suede shoes pays respect to the Carl Perkins 1955 song titled the same that marks, for many, the transition to rockabilly and rock and roll.  The Delta Blues is the home of the blues.  The delta blues is the epicenter of the blues.  The Chicago blues, St. Louis blues,  and the songs coming out of other cities following the Great Migration out of the South call back to the delta.  And then there is W.C. Handy.  With his 1914 St. Louis Blues, W.C. Handy would start a lengthy career that would eventually earn him such titles as the Father of the blues and “the  Beethoven of Beale Street.”

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I recently read an article titled  “Make My Getaway”:  The Blues Lives of Black Minstrels in W.C. Handy’s Father of the Blues” (Gussow, 2001).  Much of the article is devoted to understanding the ways in which Handy navigated a culture of racial oppression.  Whether on the stage performing minstrels or singing the blues in clubs, Handy neither shied from giving voice to the struggles of black men and women nor did he make this art a platform for being an activist for civil rights.  His approach is contrasted with other artists, such as the literary giants Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright who wrote more to inform and promote a move to justice.  It is for this reason that 100,000 copies of Handy’s autobiography Father of the Blues were sent to overseas military personnel and Wright’s Native Son remained on the shelves or libraries and people’s homes back in the States.  While Handy’s approach was more palatable to the racial majority, and the power structure of the segregated military that supported troops reading his autobiography, Gussow argues, and I agree, that it would be shortsighted to identify Handy as either complacent or submissive. In his work and his life, he voiced opposition to racial divisions.  He stood for racial justice.  And based on his personal experiences such as nearly being lynched, he realized when and how to be speak of the struggle and when to accommodate in order to survive another day.   

Excerpt from Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy — won’t you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be 

Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way  I feel

 

To watch Marc Cohn play his song , see the YouTube clip below:

 

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2 Responses to Walking With My Feet 10 Feet Off the Beale

  1. Tom Barry says:

    Handy navigated the racial line and crossed when needed. He also understood that direct confrontation is not the only path to change. Confrontation, at times, leads to tension and hardening hearts that may be warming up for change. Duke Ellington responded to inequality in similar ways. This strategy takes places in various places. In boxing, Jack Johnson agitated many whites for his “uncivilized” manners. For many whites he was challenging too many cultural mores. Fast forward to Joe Frazier, the Brown Bomber. His WC Handian response to inequality elevated his status in the white community. And in the process prompted a different discussion about race relations.

    The Cher video was interesting, especially the images they selected to represent Memphis as well as the Blues. Thanks.

    Tom

  2. Stacey says:

    Tom, Thank you for the informative posting: I’d agree that Wright’s powerful yet disturbing novel would perhaps not be the first choice of anyone sent overseas, so I’m now curious to read Handy’s autobiography.

    Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” sure has Cher’s beat!

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