Rocking In Memphis: LEAP Ambassadors Visit Tennessee

July 7, 2016

After a long hike last night, and a much-needed sleep, we began the second day of our Midwest/Southern Tour with what is now a traditional scenic stop at The Old Mill, the final extant set of Gone With the Wind.

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Most of us had been to The Old Mill before, but we were still very excited to jump out of the van and take in the beauty The Old Mill has to offer.  Moreover, Beatriz actually hadn’t been there, so she got her first taste of The Old Mill.

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Interestingly, the LEAP Center and Junior Fellows have photos at The Old Mill dating back to around 2006, making it almost a ritual among the organization.

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After some exploration, and a few photo ops, of course, we all hopped back into the van for our next destination: the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

On the way to the museum, though, we stopped by Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, to leave a few messages on the stone wall.

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And take a group photo.

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We began the tour of the National Civil Rights Museum…

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…with a special exhibit by artist Baret Boisson. Her work, themed “Inspiring Greatness through Words and Deeds,” focuses on portraits of heroes such as Mahatma Ghandi, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and her most recent–Martin Luther King, Jr.

The museum portrayed the process of the civil rights movement from the beginning to present in a very detailed and educational manner, and really emphasized the important role that civil disobedience and non-violent protest played thought the years.

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The museum’s first exhibit focused on the beginning of slavery. Slaves were considered property and were sold in exchange for items such as 40 pounds of gun powder, two iron bars, one copper bar, or even a mere five pieces of cotton cloth (an average cost of about $200 in the early 1800s). As they were bought they were expected to do heavy labor such as tending acres of tobacco plants.

The slave trade lasted about 366 years, and we were able to see the process of change in America through the museum’s many exhibits. The exhibits were displayed in order beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycotts…

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…followed by Freedom Rides, and the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

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The final exhibit included the two hotel rooms where MLK was staying at the Lorraine Motel when he was assassinated.  The rooms have been restored to what their actual state at the time, including a clear view of the balcony where he was assassinated.

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After touring the National Civil Rights Museum, we made our way through a stretch of decorative Memphis buildings to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. We were astonished by how many visitors were crammed inside the small building. With elbows grazing, eager tourists and locals ready to indulge in the restaurant’s signature hot and spicy fried chicken, we LEAPsters pondered whether this chicken was worth the claustrophobia. As tables were cleared and re-filled and waiters rushed through the cracks of the narrow table arrangements, we took our seats.

Soon after ordering, our waiter made his way towards us with an arrangement of fried chicken, coleslaw, fried pickles, beans, fried okra, and seasoned fries hovering over his hand. As his arm motioned this behemoth lunch to float down to the table’s center, our senses where overwhelmed by the scent of fried heaven. Our hunger took hold of us, and after taking a second to strategize distribution of our food, we went through legs, wings, and breasts until there was only left some bones and a some shavings of breaded fibers. Each bite was an experience in itself, with the spice piercing, but not stabbing, at every taste bud, the layer of breading just right. It was clear that this meal was not the typical greasy chain-restaurant type of fried chicken. As our empty plates were lifted and our tables cleared it seemed that we were in need of more bites from this joint’s menu. We satisfied this with a shared slice of chess pie – the sweet, creamy treat was perfect to send us off onto our next Memphis adventure.

Memphis, also known as “Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll,” boasts a small gem that has contributed to music we love and cherish, Sun Studio.

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Sun Studio recorded legends during the 50’s and 60’s that most of us still know and love. After a bit of looking around on our own…

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…and going through old records…

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To begin the tour, we learned about Sam Phillips, founder of Memphis Recording Services, which later became Sun Studio. Phillips originally opened the recording service using only a tape recorder to create recordings! Phillips primarily recorded blues music with artists like Howling Wolf, country music with a familiar name, Johnny Cash, and later transitioning into rock-n-roll with names like Jackie Brenston.

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Even though many legends got their big break at Sun Studio, the fact that the most famous star to get his start at Sun Studio was Elvis Presley is hardly ever argued. In 1952, Memphis Recording Services transitioned to Sun Studio and began producing their own labels. Shortly after graduating high school in 1953, Elvis recorded his first tape at Sun Studio with a sliver of hope that he would be “discovered” by Sam Phillips. It took time for Elvis to win over Phillips, who was interested mainly in blues music, but with a push from Phillips’ secretary (who actually recorded the future “King of Rock-n-Roll”), he finally decided to give Elvis a chance.

Mixing old blues and country, a combination that hadn’t been experimented with yet, Elvis finally got his shot when his song (“That’s All Right (Mama)”) was played on the radio one afternoon in Memphis. The radio station’s phones were ringing off the hook.  Finally, Sam Phillips knew that he had someone special in his studio.

We visited the actual studio where Elvis recorded his music, on the last part of the tour.  Our ears were ringing with joy while listening to the original recordings of some of Elvis’ songs! Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis were also discovered by and signed with Sun Records. Known as the “Million Dollar Quartet,” or the “Class of ‘55,” these four musicians would all shine fame on Sun Studio.

To end the tour, we had the opportunity to take pictures with the only original piece of equipment left from the heyday of Sun Records, a microphone that was most likely used by the members of the “Million Dollar Quartet,” and Elvis himself!

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In the spirit of historical research–which has nothing to do with the fact that she finds him handsome–Megan searched out a  photo of Elvis to pose beside.

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After rolling through the ages, the spirit of rock-n-roll stayed with us as we headed to Nashville and the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. We began with the art museum in the Cheek mansion, which is not only large and beautiful, but is also graced by a large Steve Tobin sculpture in the front yard.

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The home was previously owned by Leslie and Mabel Cheek from 1933-35. Their daughter, Huldah Cheek Sharp, then offered the home to be used as a botanical garden in the 1950s. Now, the mansion is home to and furnished with many elegant works of art.

The current exhibit allowed us to roll through the various ages of art, from American Impressionism to abstract work. Also, like musicians’ attempts to provoke sensations in their audiences, these artists’ works are a direct translation of their life experiences — evident throughout the museum. Perhaps most interesting to us was a chandelier by Bruce Munro, an artist we saw at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta last year…

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The compositions that filled the 55-room home were moving and memorable. Artists such as Childe Hassam used impressionistic paintings of nature that struck a different chord with art enthusiasts and provided a lasting respect for self-interpreting environmental art.

Megan: “My favorite painting was called, “Outskirts of East Gloucester.” The loose brushstrokes of a countryside brought a sense of home to me and happened to be a theme of the Cheek mansion. How often does one have the opportunity to look at beautiful art in a beautiful mansion? The garden and museum were definitely a “top hit” with the LEAP Ambassadors.”

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Still in the spirit of rock-n-roll, we began rocking the trails in search of the Carrell Woodland Trail’s sculptures (pun fully intended). The botanical garden was beautiful. Instead of arrangements of beautiful flowers, the parts we visited reminded us more of a state park. With cedar trees standing tall and proud, the sweet melody of the birds chirping and the cicada drone, we meandered across the trails looking for the sculptures.

As part of the trail, we passed the Cheekwood Prime Matter, Untitled, Steeple Dance, and Glass Bridge, among others.

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Last on our list was James Turrell’s Blue Pesher. The whole purpose of this chamber was to create a space where one could reflect by making their perceptions more sensitive. We sat inside, staring up the hole in the ceiling, into the sky, pondering on how to face the music of our lives. As the plaque outside the Blue Pesher puts it, “In this room, discover a commentary on the heavens and what it looks like from the inside of the chamber.” (Interestingly, “commentary” is the definition of the Hebrew pesher.)

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The sky at dusk as seen from the floor of Turrell’s Skyscape, Blue Pesher

With the sunset, the symphony within ourselves had to come to a slow and soft end, as the sky could no longer be seen. We headed back to the van knowing that the melody in our hearts had been heard and that our self-perspectives would be seen in a new light.

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To continue enjoying our Nashville evening, we had dinner at Mitchell Delicatessen. Housed within a wooden facade that resembled a country home, the deli offered an eclectic assortment of sandwiches. From tofu to BBQ brisket to a Tennessee Tuna Melt to an Asian flank steak, it was a challenge to narrow down which to choose.

Megan: I chose the Asian flank steak. This renowned deli magnum opus (which was apparently featured in the Travel Channel) was unlike any other sandwich I had ever had the honor to taste. With steak smothered in provolone cheese on a bed of sliced bell, banana pepper, celery, carrots, and olives, this deli delicacy was enough to send my palate down a ride of flavorful delight. To make the experience even more interesting and add tad of an effervescente ride, my meal was accompanied by one of the eatery’s own draft cola.

We rounded out our second day of the trip with a very satisfying repast from Nashville’s culinary spectrum and headed to our hotel for a good night’s rest.

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Author: mikeyawn

Mike Yawn teaches at Sam Houston State University. In the past few years, he has taught courses on Politics & Film, Public Policy, the Presidency, Media & Politics, Congress, Statistics, Research & Writing, Field Research, and Public Opinion. He has published academic papers in the Journal of Politics, Political Behavior, Social Security Quarterly, Film & History, American Politics Review, and contributed a chapter to the textbook Politics and Film. He also contributes columns, news analysis, and news stories to news stories, having contributed more than 50 pieces in the past year. Yawn is also active in his local community, serving on the board of directors of the local YMCA and Friends of the Wynne. Previously, he served on the Huntsville's Promise and Stan Musial World Series Boards of Directors. In 2007-2008, Yawn was one of eight scholars across the nation named as a Carnegie Civic Engagement Scholar by the Carnegie Foundation.

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