Memphis Marvels - "It Ain't Nothin' but a Party"
I walked into the room and thought, “this is different.” After a steamy afternoon, a reception on Main Street sounded like a good idea - and I would get to check out another new place in my discovery of Memphis. And so it was I took the trip from Frank Stokes’ new headstone dedication at Hollywood Cemetery, hosted by and courtesy of Mt Zion Memorial Fund, to the eclectic environs of The Center for Southern Folklore. I met two musicians who I follow today, Eric Hughes and Davis Coen, another Eric behind the counter, and the boss - Judy Peiser. This was her baby, a project she started in her room at her parents’ house and has dedicated her life to ever since. I was so awestruck I told her I would be back to speak with her about volunteering. That meeting has led to a couple of busy summers and some fruitful encounters.
The Center itself is a Memphis marvel - it’s a store, cultural and history lesson, cozy music venue, and absolute treasure trove of archival material - pictures, music, and film. I want to get out into the world to tell people of its uniqueness and that a stop there is a top “to do” when in Memphis. I really want to get that message to Memphians first. On any given day, original art by Frank Lilly, local CD’s by Rice Drewry, and First Friday performances by Linear Smith and Billy Gibson go unnoticed by an growing downtown population. Despite the lack of local support, Judy and her crew open the doors, welcome everyone that walks in the door or on the mall enthusiastically.
Those busy summers - they have been spent playing a part in what I consider the “top of the charts” and MVP of Memphis marvels - Labor Day weekend’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Two days - 24 hours - of music, food demos, dancers, drummers, and displays. This year the music varied from internationally recognized blues and rock performer Luther Dickinson to some kids from Memphis calling themselves Cedar Planks; Mississippi fife and drum to Memphis mariachi; and original Sun artist Smoochie Smith to Arkansas teen songwriter Bailey Bigger. That’s just a small sample of performers appearing on five stages, just about every hour for two days. And 2017 was no one-off! Judy has been doing this for 31 years. That’s not even the best part for local and visiting music lovers. Yes, the “bucket brigades” of volunteers soliciting donations are ever present, but the festival is FREE! I have never seen anything like it in my life nor does Memphis. So for the last two summers I have written promotional pieces on the artists and musicians and honorees like Frank Lilly, Cam Kimbrough, and the late Bertha Bachus. Though I’m only a fair performance photographer, those pics and video snippets help record and hopefully influence visitors near and far to come to The Center for Southern Folklore and see the musicians at one of their full performances. The major drawback for me as a music fan, however, is getting to see only a few minutes of each set. It’s like eating one potato chip.
Elvis, Furry Lewis, Dewey Phillips, and so many others grace Beale Street, their names engraved in brass musical notes. If you take the time, the notes will tell you the story of Memphis music. Phenomenal music closed the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival this year as it has all the others, but the climax was another unique Memphis event. Judy Peiser co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore. Since then she has produced music and films, led tours of musicians to Vietnam, and worked tirelessly through difficult moves from Beale Street to low-traffic life on the Main Street mall. For all those 40 years plus, she has been a driving force in showcasing new acts and keeping the spotlight on veteran musicians, with talks and shows and the festival. She is uniquely Memphis, and this year she got a little hard-earned brass bling which will ensure she takes her place among musicians, photographers, writers, and fellow promoters of our heritage. Next time you’re walking down Beale, step gingerly and look down. If you don’t know the name, look it up. If you think you know the name, look it up anyway. This is our bold brass line, from WC Handy to future who knows who - and joining it today was Ms. “it ain’t nothin’ but a party” Judy Peiser, a Memphis marvel!