Memphis Feature

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A Brief Memphistory

Memphis was founded in 1819, but long before that, the Mississippi River, on whose banks it was built, exerted a powerful influence on the area. Both the river and the people who first appreciated it are celebrated in Memphis today. The Native American river culture that existed here from the 11th through the 15th centuries is documented in archaeological excavations, reconstructions, and exhibits at the Chucalissa Archaeological Museum. The river itself is celebrated with a museum dedicated to its history—part of Mud Island, a unique park occupying an island in the river.

The other significant influence on the city has been the music that has flowed through it. W. C. Handy moved from Alabama to Memphis in 1902–03, drawn by the long-thriving music scene, and it was here that he produced most of the blues songs that made him famous. The recent history of legendary Beale Street reflects that of all modern Memphis. Economic decline in the mid-20th century brought the city to its knees, and the unrest following the assassination in 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel, just south of Beale, dealt a near-fatal blow. Today, thanks to public improvements and an economy built around such distribution giants as Federal Express, Memphis has been brought back to life, and Beale Street has numerous clubs and restaurants, as it did in its heyday.

When you mention Memphis, one name springs to most minds: Elvis, the undisputed king of rock and roll. Although he was actually born across the state line in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis put Memphis on the map, recording his first hits here in what came to be known as Sun Studio. His legacy burns bright at Graceland, the estate where he lived, died, and rests in peace. Each year hundreds of thousands of fans make the pilgrimage to pay homage to the man and his music. Elvis International Tribute Week, held each August at Graceland, has grown to match the myth.

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