If you're a fan of gospel music, jazz, rock, folk, rap, hip hop, or the blues, then the place to be Labor Day weekend was in Tennessee at the annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. The three-day event featured non-stop entertainment from noon to nearly midnight - all for free and all a reminder of why this southern city has played such a big role in American musical history.
The vocal quartet, Spirit of Memphis, has truly earned its name. The group has been singing gospel music in the area for 73 years now. After performing at this year's Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, lead singer Melvin Mosley says the members have changed, but the music hasn't.
"As the older guys passed on or got sick and weren't able to perform, we tried to weed in [bring in] the right guys to keep the same sound as the original group, especially with the voices," he said. "Most music today overrides the voices, and it's more like rhythm patterns with music. But we try to always get our message out through our voices, through song." If Spirit of Memphis brought a sense of tradition to the festival, rap performers like Al Kapone and Kavious showed how times are changing.
The Memphis Music and Heritage Festival is an annual celebration of regional music, crafts and food. It's sponsored by the local Center for Southern Folklore, with support from community groups and audience donations. Judy Peiser, the Center's executive producer, says the aim is to showcase a legacy that keeps moving in new directions.
"All these musicians from this area draw on our rich cultural heritage. And so what we're trying to do with this whole festival is let you see the new look of the South," she said. "There's a lot of old, there's a lot of rockabilly, there's a lot of blues. But there's also new twists to it, and that's what we try to show at the festival."
Blues harmonica player Blind Mississippi Morris is one of many festival performers who've entertained audiences around the world. But their roots remain in the mid-South a region that's had a profound effect on American music. Rock star Elvis Presley and blues guitarist B.B. King were just a few of the local performers who got their start in Memphis recording studios, or at clubs on Beale Street, the famed center of local night life. Judy Peiser says the city's location along the Mississippi River helps explain its influence.
"This was that first stop for people along that cultural route north if they wanted better jobs, better opportunities," she said. "They left the farm, and they came to Memphis on a Greyhound bus. And if they were like a B. B. King they made it big and went on further. And what's interesting is that in Memphis, there was the rural and urban music coming together. And because of segregation, blacks couldn't go [certain] places and whites couldn't go [certain] places. But music drew people together, so even though they couldn't mix in the clubs at that point, there was still this amazing amount of musical cross pollination. So Memphis musicians know a lot about each other's music."
It's a borrowing process that continues to this day. Robert Horton performs with Cooley's House, named for a pub in Ireland. He says his group's inspirations range from Europe to the American South.
"Irish and Cajun,[but] mainly it's Memphis. I think the Mississippi River has something to do with the rhythm of it," he said. "It just pounds that into everybody's bloodstream. So Memphis is the main connection."
The festival also featured performances by more recent arrivals to Memphis. Dehao Shen played an ancient Chinese instrument called the gu chin.
Ms. Shen talked about what it's like to perform Chinese music in the birthplace of American blues. "I'm very, very delighted because I'm introducing the best of the traditional Chinese music to the city of Memphis," she said.
And as for the music all around them, Dehao Shen still hasn't found much time to listen, but her translator Jinliang Cai said he has.
"I really enjoy rock and roll," she said. "And of course I'm here in Memphis, so it's Elvis Presley. And I actually go to Beale Street all the time. I enjoy the blues a lot too."
The annual festival is a reminder that being Southern can mean many different things, something Judy Peiser says she's learned from personal experience.
"I grew up in the South as part of the Jewish community, and you were part of the ethnic community, and you were part of the southern community," she said. "So what I've always tried to show is those things that connect people and yet celebrate their differences. So we do lox and grits and baklava and piroshki, you name it. And if you look back at all the festivals you realize you understand a lot more about the people of the region, the traditions of the region, whether it's making ravioli or playing rock and roll."
As the sounds of rock and roll, blues and traditional Chinese music fade away, the Center for Southern Folklore is already planning for next year's Memphis Music and Heritage Festival.