Set high on the eastern bank of the mighty Mississippi River, in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, Memphis is known the world over as an immensely musical city - the cradle of the 'blues', the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and the location of Graceland, Elvis Presley's flamboyant mansion. However, there is much more to Memphis than music. Named after the capital of ancient Egypt (a reference to the Mississippi being the Nile of America) this city is a hustler, an enterprising metropolis with trade running through its veins. There is evidence that its origins as a settlement date back to at least AD1000, when Native Americans lived and worshipped here. The modern town was founded in 1819, after its strategic position, high enough above the river to escape flooding, had attracted the attention of European settlers.
A natural crossroads between New Orleans, St Louis and Chicago, Memphis became an important trading centre in the mid 19th century and the main shipping port for cotton grown in the Mississippi Delta. Its climate was not inhospitable (although summers are hot and humid, the winters are generally mild) and the city soon grew, spreading eastwards from the river. Today, Memphis is an intriguing mix of old and new, with shabby warehouses and serene Victorian villas jostling for space with modern skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls. The work ethic is strong and the city is home to many contemporary companies, although traditional industries are still important - as evidenced by the cotton exchanges in the Downtown area, which are still at the heart of the world cotton trade.
It was cotton that indirectly spawned the Memphis music industry, as the blues evolved from songs sung by slaves working in the cotton fields. After the Civil War, rural black people flocked to the city in search of work. Beale Street in Downtown Memphis became the centre of black life and culture and the sound of the blues soon oozed from almost every building.
Today, Beale Street is still a musical Mecca, a vibrant place where bands play in smoky bars, locals and tourists stroll on sultry summer evenings and young boys perform breathtaking backflips along the street.
The laid-back atmosphere of the city, as characterized by the local saying: 'it's cooler in the shade', has often concealed a rougher edge. Memphis was the setting for tragedy in 1968, when black civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Tension increased, residents left for the safety of the suburbs and Downtown fell into a seemingly terminal decline.
However, the city has risen from the ashes of hatred. The Lorraine Motel is now America's Civil Rights Museum and millions of dollars are being spent on revitalizing the Downtown area. Developers are transforming derelict warehouses into trendy loft apartments, condos, art galleries and boutiques. New museums and stylish restaurants are springing up and even the vast steel Pyramid erected on the banks of the Mississippi has been superseded as premiere sports and entertainment complex by the expansive new FedExForum. They're still making legends in Memphis and the music will continue to evolve, reflecting the heart of the times, even while the Mississippi River still rolls on to the Gulf and The Peabody ducks march precisely at 1100 and 1700.
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