My dad and I couldn't visit Memphis without checking out Beale Street. Most cities have streets or districts that everyone has heard of—Bourbon Street, Times Square, Hollywood Blvd—and they're often crowded and touristy precisely because they're so well known. Beale Street is no exception, and it reminded me of a smaller (and slightly less stinky) Bourbon Street with tons of neon signs, bars and live music.
Beale Street was established in 1841 (originally called Beale Avenue) and it runs 1.8 miles from the Mississippi River to East Street in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. In the late 1800s many black traveling musicians flocked to Beale Street and in 1890 the Great Opera House was built (now known as the Orpheum). The street was filled with black-owned businesses, and it was home to the anti-segregationist paper Free Speech, co-owned and edited by NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells.
Beale Street simultaneously claims to be the "Official Home of the Blues," "America’s Most Iconic Street" and "Tennessee’s Top Tourism Attraction" (Graceland might try to argue that last one). The 1916 song "Beale Street Blues" precipitated the name change from avenue to Beale Street—but it was Marc Cohn's 1990 song "Walking in Memphis" that kept running through my head for our entire trip (When I was walking in Memphis / I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale). Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie and B. B. King all played on Beale Street, developing a style eventually known as Memphis Blues.
By the 1960s—especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the nearby Lorraine Motel—Memphis was a ghost town and many of the businesses on Beale had closed. This decline is more obvious in some parts of town than others—Beale Street was lively while we were there, but it's still a long way from what I imagine it looked like in its heyday.