Friday, September 12, 2003
Walking In Memphis

Last night I found myself in a cozy piano bar, with a few of my friends (including the people I live with), throwing out song requests to the phenomenally talented piano player. Things were really humming along, and then he asked for a request, and the unusually small crowd (it's normally packed, I'm told) fell silent for a second or two. So I tossed out Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis," and was subsequently blown away. The performance was great, the song was just like I remembered it, but there was something else there that just moved me into silence.

Now I didn't grow up in Memphis, or even Tennessee. I grew up in the heart of Texas, and in 1991 (when the song came out) I was just entering fifth grade. Not exactly old enough to fully comprehend the world, or even enjoy music for the various strains of subtle complexity that it holds (as opposed to what I enjoyed back then: the catchiness). So why did this song, which I only vaguely remembered from my childhood, provoke such silent reflection from me? Nostalgia. Not for the song, per se, but for the atmosphere, the surroundings that it conveyed to me.

I've been to Memphis a few times in my life, but never at a time when I had enough interest or patience to walk around exploring. Most times we just spent the night in a hotel on our way further north (or south), and when we did visit, I was too young to realize what I was missing by playing with my toys instead of experiencing the place (Mud Island's great, by the way, for little boys who like playing around with models).

So yeah, we've established that I have minimal involvement with Tennessee. But this song is about more than that, really. It's like the book I'm reading for Canadian Literature: Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town. The author captures that sometimes ellusive 'universal' feeling about small towns. He even says it himself, in his opening chapter -

"I don't know whether you know Mariposa. If not, it is of no consequence, for if you know Canada at all, you are probably well acquainted with dozens of towns just like it."

I think Cohn's lyrics do the same thing that Stephen Leacock's prose does so well - they make you feel like you know the place. They are specific enough to definitely display the type of town the author means for you to think of, but general enough to transpose over any city that might remotely match the criteria.

And if nothing else, these lines fit right in-between Texas and Louisiana:

"They've got catfish on the table
They've got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green be glad to see you
When you haven't got a prayer"

So there I was, sitting in a warm, dim, cozy Toronto bar, sipping a Coke with lime, listening to a musician perform a song that perfectly captures not only the southern feeling, but accurately describes those emotions I've had so many times in my life. And there's nothing like finding a song (or, even better, a group) that can perfectly convey things inside your own mind that just can't escape in any other way.

I realize this all reads a little bit sentimentally, a tad sappy. But that's okay. That's the mood I'm in - and it's a great one.
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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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