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Title: ‘Walking in Memphis’
Where to find it: ‘Marc Cohn’ (1991, Atlantic)
Performed by: Marc Cohn
Words by: Marc Cohn

First, the words:

Verse 1
Put on my blue suede shoes and
I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

W.C. Handy
Won’t you look down over me
Yeah, I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be

Chorus
Then I’m walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Verse 2
I saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through

Now, security did not see him
They just hovered round his tomb
But there’s a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
And she’s down in the jungle room

Chorus (slightly modified)
When I was walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Verse 3
Now, 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
But boy you got a prayer in Memphis

Now, Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said, “Tell me are you a Christian, child?”
And I said, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”

Chorus x2
Walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Outro
Put on my blue suede shoes and I
Boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

Now, the analysis:

There was piano in pop music. It was either before Coldplay and after Coldplay. I feel for the kids younger than me, for Coldplay (and maybe Keane for some of the smarter ones) is all they know when they think of piano being used in popular song. Uh, no. ‘Walking in Memphis’ by Cleveland-born singer/songwriter Marc Cohn shows how piano can be used in a pop song as an emphatic declaration of feeling. The lyrics are none too shabby either, as they touch on the mythology of Memphis, Tennessee, not only as the (in)famous hometown of Elvis Presley, but as its position in America’s Bible belt and as the physical northern border of where the Delta blues were considered to have originated in America’s South.

I’m not a religious person by any means, but there is something so stirring so powerful in the words “She said, ‘Tell me are you a Christian, child?’ / and I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight!’”, you want to get up out of your chair and shout. This song takes all the best parts of the South and puts them forth: “W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me” (the unofficial “leader” of the Delta Blues movement, looking down on earth from heaven), “crawfish on the table” (the food), “Beale” (one of the main drags of downtown Memphis), prayer and singing in a church. “Hollywood” not to the one in Los Angeles but to a northern Memphis neighbourhood more famous for its gang violence, presumably where African-Americans would more likely be gathering in a church to sing religious hymns. [Update: See comment #1 to the post from Robert Hardeman, who explains that "Hollywood" refers to an actual restaurant and bar where Muriel is playing.]

While most of the lyrics are obvious, my ear turns to “I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale”. Is he a ghost, ala Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense? It seems that he must be human and alive, if he’s being asked to play piano by Muriel in the church. Still, I wonder…

Other great lines: “and Reverend Green, be glad to see you / when you haven’t got a prayer / but boy, you got a prayer in Memphis”: to me, that’s the essence of what Christianity – and religion – should be that so many people who claim to be Christians seem to have forgotten. Faith is something you can believe in. It shouldn’t be something you’re embarrassed by when you see and hear what others of your faith are saying or doing.

Lastly, the song, via its original promo video.

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