Guest Columns

TEEGARDEN: NEVER BEEN TO GRACELAND, BUT…

Elvis lives! In the cradle of the Civil War

Contributing Columnist

Last week was Elvis Week. The Beatles may have had “Eight Days a Week,” but Elvis got 9! That’s right — Aug. 10 through Aug. 18 was Elvis Week, and the primary celebrations occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, at Graceland, and throughout the Memphis metropolitan area.


“The King” died 35 years ago on Aug. 16, and the mass pilgrimage to Graceland was notable this year, with more than 70,000 showing up for a candlelight vigil at Graceland, to say nothing of attendance at the FedEx Arena concert (including Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley) in downtown Memphis, or the many other related festivities.

As awesome and transcendent as Elvis was and is, the most insightful and poignant lyrics in tribute to his Memphis mansion were written by Paul Simon:

The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar.
I am following the River down the Highway, through the Cradle of the Civil War.
I am going to Graceland, Graceland, to Memphis, Tennessee….

Personally, I’ve never been to Graceland. But I’ve spent lots of quality time in the immediate vicinity. Memphis, Tennessee should be a mandatory field trip for every American who professes to care about our national heritage.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and now the site of the world class National Civil Rights Museum. It’s a sacred place, with profound lessons and insights for Americans of all ages and skin-tones.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to Shiloh National Military Park and Cemetery, about 100 miles east of Memphis, where Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to repulse and decimate the Confederate Army of Tennessee. This peaceful and well-preserved Civil War battlefield on the banks of the Tennessee River (a tributary of the Mississippi, of course) is on a par with Gettysburg, PA and Antietam (Sharpsburg), MD in terms of historic preservation and interpretation of hallowed ground.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to Fort Pillow, 55 miles north of Memphis, a Confederate-built Civil War fort high on the cliffs over the Mississippi River, where Confederate General, slave trader, and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest allowed his troops to murder African American (then called “Colored”) federal soldiers in cold blood after the battle was over.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to the Mud Island River Park along the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, where families can stroll along a five block (2,000 ft.) scale model of “Big Muddy” with numerous historic and geographic interpretations of our most important river from its sources in the far north all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico while simultaneously strolling along the banks of the actual river itself.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to the Mississippi River docks in downtown Memphis, which now include tourist attractions such as 19th Century Riverboat rides and an expansive biking and hiking trail. On the waterfront, it’s easy to envision antebellum Memphis as the commercial crossroads for “King Cotton,” grown, harvested, ginned, baled, and toted by African American slaves for distribution to white folk in Europe and northern U.S. cities via river barges and railroads.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art, which contains ancient and breathtaking treasures, but also reminds me to confront the shameful and misguided Civil War act of my otherwise hero, Ulysses S. Grant, who issued an order expelling the Jews from his theater of operations (including Memphis). This is actually a longer and fascinating story about King Cotton as well as anti-Semitism, and I promise a future column on Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11 and its ramifications and legacy for Jews in America over the course of Grant’s presidency. Rest assured that Abraham Lincoln immediately quashed the ludicrous order and Grant seemed to genuinely atone for his disgraceful mistake for the remainder of his life.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to Oxford, Mississippi, just 100 miles southeast of Memphis. Oxford is the home of William Faulkner and the main campus of the University of Mississippi. Oxford was twice invaded by federal troops under Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, during the Civil War, then a third time in the fall of 1962 by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marshalls when the Mississippi’s Governor and State Patrol refused to assist African American student James Meredith in his effort to enroll at Ol’ Miss.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to the giant stone statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest on his horse. Forrest, the slave trader/KKK founder/Ft. Pillow massacre dude, is actually buried under the statue, in the middle of Forrest Park on the edge of downtown Memphis, but his horse apparently is not. I’ve also been to Jefferson Davis Park, which overlooks the spot on the Mississippi River where Union gunboats shattered the Confederate defenses at Memphis in 1862.

I often wonder how the devoted caretakers of these dubious and deteriorating memorials live peacefully side by side with those who’ve constructed and nurtured the National Civil Rights Museum, Mud Island Park and so many other rich and fascinating parts of Memphis, Tennessee and it’s environs.

My travelling companions are ghosts and empty sockets,
I’m lookin’ at ghosts and empties…
…But I’ve reasons to believe we all will be received in Graceland.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been down to “The Crossroads” in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 75 miles south of Memphis (follow the River or the fabled Highway 61 which intersects in Clarksdale with Highway 49, better known by Robert Johnson’s immortal lyrics). And by the way, Clarksdale is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and in close proximity to numerous less known but equally important birthplaces and inspirational sources of “America’s music.” Places like Parchman Farm (still a state penitentiary), Indianola, Belzoni, and Dockery Plantation… a vast flat delta peppered with juke joints and cotton gins, and trees draped with Spanish moss. Just a very few examples of the immortal blues pioneers who somehow emerged from the African-American poverty of this local area’s ubiquitous cotton fields include Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Booker (Bukka) White, both Sonny Boy Williamsons, B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, Little Walter, and John Lee Hooker.

Never been to Graceland, and I’ve never been to nearby Helena and West Memphis, Arkansas, where radio stations KFFA and KWEM provided the first “on the air” opportunities to many of the Delta Blues pioneers through “King Biscuit Time” and similar programming. But I have been to KDIA in downtown Memphis, which carried on the tradition of KFFA and KWEN, becoming the first significant radio station in America exclusively programmed for African-American listeners.

We are poor boys and pilgrims with families,
And we are going to Graceland.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to Beale Street, where all of the greatest Delta Blues artists hung out and performed, long before Muddy Waters and his contemporaries took the Delta to Chicago. Today, Beale Street remains a fantastic center of Blues music, culture, and collectibles, including numerous indoor and outdoor Blues performance venues, along with a sometimes-daunting “flash mob” tourist presence in the evenings from Thursday through Sunday.

…Shining like a national guitar,
…Following the River,
…Through the Cradle of the Civil War.

Never been to Graceland. But Memphis, Tennessee is an ideal “base camp” for learning the ambiguities that are America. Anyone even casually curious to better understand America’s Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction history, the continuing saga of America’s Civil Rights Movement, America’s indigenous Delta Blues music, and America’s “Old Man River” (aka, the Mississippi) and its many tributaries and watersheds, needs to go there.

Never been to Graceland, but I’ve been to Sun Studios in Memphis, where Sam Phillips and Elvis made all those records. Throughout the 1950s, Sun Records was both the “golden opportunity” for aspiring musicians and also the great “melting pot” for Delta Blues, early Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Rockabilly. Prior to and concurrent with Elvis, Phillips was also recording and sometimes combining undiscovered artists such as B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Milton, Johnny Cash, James Cotton, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, and others.

Upon reflection, Elvis bequeathed us a precious endowment by drawing the attention of his worldwide fan base to one of the cultural touchstone cities of the United States. “The King” departed way too soon from our lives, dying in 1977 at the age of 42. If visiting Graceland will remind any of us to remember and emulate America’s greatest King, (Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.), whom we lost nine years earlier, at the age of 39, in Memphis, Tennessee, and to listen to the soul-searching riffs and lyrics of the “King of the Blues” (B.B.), then by all means let’s get to Graceland.

For reasons I cannot explain,
There’s a part of me wants to see Graceland.

By way of Beale Street and the Lorraine Motel, and countless other “points of light, history, tradition, and interest.”

Patrick Teegarden, whose series on the Civil War received the second place award in last year’s Colorado Press Association’s contest for column writing, is a senior policy aide in the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper.