Saturday Single No. 227

 As I wander through the forest of mp3s that has grown on my external hard drive, I sometimes find it hard to see the trees. Trying to decide on a single tune or title as a subject for writing is difficult when there are more than 50,000 recordings covering the digital hills and valleys.

So I devise ways to sort the lumber into segments that help me make some sense of it. One of them – by year – is obvious and frequently used. (The total of mp3s from my favorite year, 1970, now stands at 3,177.) So is sorting by title, which I use when I am considering writing about cover versions of a song. And the other day, I had the RealPlayer sort all 50,000-plus mp3s by title, and the results pointed something out to me that I kind of knew but hadn’t really thought about, if that makes any kind of sense.

I like songs about Memphis, Tennessee.

A rough count this morning showed that I have more than fifty recordings of songs with “Memphis” in the title. That total is vague because I’m not sure if I should count the five or so versions of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” as it’s not really about Memphis, unless it’s a Memphis from an alternate universe. At least fifty recordings, however, are about the real Memphis, the home of rock ’n’ roll that was the gateway out of the South for millions.

More than any other large city in the U.S., Memphis calls to me. Someday, I hope, the city will be a gateway for me into the South, as I still have hopes of getting there and then heading south into the Delta to explore a territory that already seems familiar in daydreams and reverie. I’d spend time in Memphis, too, of course, absorbing what I could of that city’s history from the Stax Museum to the Lorraine Motel, from Graceland to the famous ducks at the Peabody.

Given the southward pull I feel, it’s no wonder, I guess, that I collect songs with the city’s name in their titles. The earliest recorded such tune I have is Bessie Smith’s 1923 recording, “Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town,” and the most recent is Sheryl Crow’s “100 Miles From Memphis,” which was released last year.

It’s easy enough to fill in most of the intervening decades: From the 1934, we have “Memphis Shakedown” by the Memphis Jug Band. Nothing from the 1940s comes up, but the end of the 1950s, we find Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” and the 1960s were thick with songs that were in one way or another about the city atop the Mississippi bluffs: A couple of favorites are 1968’s “Memphis Train” by Rufus Thomas and “L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas” by Dale Hawkins in 1969.

The 1970s bring us, among others, Dan Penn’s “Raining In Memphis” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way From Memphis,” both from 1973. In 1981, Jesse Winchester gave us “Talk Memphis,” while John Fogerty’s 1985  track called Elvis Presley the “Big Train (From Memphis)” and John Hiatt released “Memphis in the Meantime” in 1987.

And the early years of the 1990s were chock-full of Memphian melodies, starting with the obvious, Marc Cohn’s brilliant “Walking in Memphis.” Also released between 1991 and 1994 – during the early years of that decade’s revival of country music, I’d say – were “Maybe It Was Memphis” by Pam Tillis, “Wrong Side of Memphis” by Trisha Yearwood, “Memphis Pearl” by Lucinda Williams and my favorite song among all of these, “Memphis Women and Chicken,” written by Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts and Gary Nicholson.

Penn’s performance of the song, from 1991’s Do Right Man, is good, but the first version of the tune I ever heard was by T. Graham Brown, who covered the song on his 1998 album Wine Into Water. (That was also the year, as it happened, that The Band covered Bobby Charles’ “Last Train to Memphis” on Jubilation, the group’s final release of new music.) And Alvin Youngblood Hart went “Back to Memphis” in 2000.

Continuing on into the first decade of this century, songs about Memphis continued to appear: The Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls released “West Memphis Three” in 2001 (which maybe shouldn’t count, as West Memphis is actually across the Mississippi River in Arkansas), Etta James sang of the “Wayward Saints of Memphis” in 2003, and Old Crow Medicine Show released “Memphis Motel” in 2008.

And early today, I discovered a new version of my favorite Memphis song. In 2008, one of the song’s co-writers, Gary Nicholson, released an album titled after his alter-ego, bluesman Whitey Johnson. So here is Nicholson – with the assistance of, I believe, Colin Linden – from Whitey Johnson with “Memphis Women and Chicken,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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One Response to “Saturday Single No. 227”

  1. […] listening to and collecting records and digital music files that use place names in their titles. I walked briefly through titles that include “Memphis” a couple of years ago. That may be the most popular of […]

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