The Cultural History of Memphis


The city of Memphis has a rich cultural history. It is known as the birthplace of soul, blues, and rock n’ roll music, and has given way to some of the world’s most talented performers. Interested tourists can participate in riverboat tours along the Mississippi River, culinary tours of the city’s greatest restaurants, and walking or driving tours of the oldest neighborhoods and districts. Memphis has played a pivotal role in the cultural growth of the South-read on to find out more about the contributions of this much-loved city.


Riverboats (or “steamboats” as they were known in the early years) have a long history tied to the Mississippi River and its tributaries. River trade and travel was at its peak by the late 19th century, and steamboats were very important to the economic development of many Southern states. Today, tourists can experience the Memphis area by boarding a riverboat and enjoying a fun sightseeing cruise of the Mississippi River.

African-American Music

Memphis is a city with strong ties to African-American soul and blues music. In the ’60s and ’70s, Stax Records launched the careers of such trailblazers as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, and Albert King. Beale Street, known for its lively nightlife and music clubs, is another important piece of Memphis music history-B.B. King actually gained his nickname after being billed as the “Beale Street Blues Boy.”

Rock and Roll

Memphis is also heralded as the birthplace of rock n’ roll. Sun Records, founded in 1952 by Sam Phillips, became the home of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, among many others. The sound that became associated with these artists was pivotal in forming the early rockabilly music style. Memphis is also the home of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s 13-acre estate. Hundreds of thousands of fans visit the site every year to pay tribute to the much-beloved artist.

Firsts in Radio

Memphis played a large part in the history of radio. WDIA, created in 1947, was the first radio station created by and for African-Americans. It became a blueprint for other similar stations, prompting WLOK-the second all-African-American station-opened in 1954. The city was also home to WHER, the first all-women radio station in the world. It was created in 1955 by Sam Phillips, the founder of the Sun Records label.

Culinary History

The city of Memphis is well known for one particular food-barbecue. Although the term “barbecue” has many different definitions in the South, in Memphis is it defined as slow-cooked pork ribs or shoulders prepared with a vinegar and tomato-based sauce. Each year, the city is home to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. In addition to barbecue, the city is also stepping up as a great place for fine dining, pizza, and burgers.

Historically Significant Districts

Memphis has many historic neighborhoods that are a must-see for visitors. Located in North Memphis, the city’s first business district (known as the Pinch) was originally home to most of the city’s Irish, Jewish, Italian, Russian, and Greek immigrants. The Orange Mound neighborhood is considered to be the first post-Civil War African-American residential area in the South. Another historic district is the Victorian Village, located in the eastern area of downtown. This neighborhood is comprised of large, Victorian-style homes that date back to the 19th century.


Founded in 1878, The University of Tennessee College of Dentistry is the oldest dental college in the South and the third oldest in the country. It was originally located in Nashville and moved to Memphis in 1911 in order to expand. Rhodes College and The University of Memphis (originally known as West Tennessee State Normal School) are other historic colleges in the area. The LeMoyne-Owen College is particularly important to African-American history because it can trace its roots to the merger of LeMoyne College and Owen College, both of which were some of the first schools to educate slaves after the Civil War.


Other notable places of interest are the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, showcasing many of the music legends to come out of the area. Memphis is also home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in the Lorraine Motel-the location of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Other notable sites to visit are the historic Peabody Memphis Hotel, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, home of over 200 acres of lakes, ponds, and woodlands. The National Ornamental Metal Museum, located south of downtown, is the country’s only museum dedicated to metalwork.

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