Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marc Cohn - Walking In Memphis

"Walking in Memphis" is the signature song of American singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, from his self-titled 1991 album. The song became Cohn's biggest hit, peaking at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and, after being re-released in fall 1991, reached #22 on the UK chart. The popularity of this song helped Cohn win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1991.
Cohn was a young aspiring singer-songwriter from Cleveland, Ohio. He'd never been to Memphis before; in fact he'd never traveled at all. Upon reaching the South he was very moved emotionally after seeing an Al Green sermon, and underwent both spiritual transformation and professional growth. Al Green is referenced in the lyrics as 'Reverend Green.' It was there in Memphis he met his first wife Cindy, about whom he wrote the acoustic cult classic "Cindy Sue, I Love You". The evocative song contains references to Elvis Presley and W. C. Handy.

The song opens with what might sound like an allusion to Elvis—referencing the protagonist putting on his "blue suede shoes." The "Blue Suede Shoes" reference is actually to Carl Perkins, who recorded the song in Memphis for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Perkins' ill-luck in a car wreck stopped him from touring to promote the record, allowing Elvis' cover version to become a massive hit. Presley's copy was recorded at RCA studios in Nashville. The narrator tells of seeing "The ghost of Elvis up on Union Avenue and followed him up to gates of Graceland." Sam Phillips' studios were called "Memphis Recording Service" and were at 706 Union Avenue. Elvis' start on the journey to fame and fortune (i.e. Graceland) is usually attributed to the success of "Blues Suede Shoes" - and that of "Heartbreak Hotel." "Now, security did not see him" is probably a comment on the story that Bruce Springsteen once successfully scaled the wall at Graceland, trying to deliver a song he wrote. Apparently, Elvis wasn't there.
"There's catfish on table and gospel in the air" marks the dichotomy between secular and sacred. Catfish is the standard Blues metaphor for sexual intercourse. (The word is also interchangeable with the slang expression for female genitalia). "Catfish" thus would appeal to the bodily instincts, whereas "gospel" would be to the intellect.
This interpretation is dubious at best, as catfish is common Mississippi fare, and the tone of the entire piece is nostalgic and spiritual.
The metaphor gains more credence since Al Green supposedly renounced secular music after being scalded with grits by a jealous girlfriend. The lyrics refer to the girl waiting in the Jungle Room. This was the name of the play area at Elvis' Graceland mansion where he and the crew would take care of business (TCB).
After touching down in the "land of the Delta Blues," he asks W. C. Handy to "please look down over me." Although he has a first class ticket, he's as "blue as a boy can be."
From this opening verse, the narrator seems to be following in the footsteps of Elvis Presley, and his plea to W. C. Handy would appear to reflect his desire to work in music. After the second chorus, the narrator talks about Memphis, ending with the line "but, boy, you've got a prayer in Memphis," reflecting his hopes, and the probable reason he made the journey. In the chorus, he describes himself as "walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale," a reference to the famous street in Memphis and to the fact that in times of happiness, one can be described as walking ten feet off the ground.
The second verse describes a visit to Elvis' home, Graceland, where the narrator sees the ghost of Elvis and follows him up to the gates. He also describes a "pretty little thing, waiting for the King, down in the jungle room," which could be a reference to Lisa Marie in the famous Graceland jungle room (It is believed that Lisa Marie would sit waiting for Elvis to return in the Jungle room - her teddy bear can still be seen located on her chair in the room).
The final verse describes the narrator being asked to "do a little number" for Muriel who plays the piano at the Hollywood, a cafe in what is now Tunica Resorts, Mississippi. The line, "Muriel plays piano every Friday at The Hollywood" is a reference to a local artist who played at the Hollywood Cafe, which is a small diner/music joint in Tunica County, Mississippi. Muriel has passed away, but The Hollywood is still there - you drive right past it to go to several of the casinos now located in Tunica. In arguably the song's most memorable line, when she asks Cohn, who was born Jewish, whether he's a Christian, he replies, "Ma'am, I am tonight."

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