Find Out More on Beale Street

Cantor, Louis. Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound That Changed America. New York: Pharos Books, 1992.

In the late 1940s, Memphis radio station WDIA became the first to target its programming to a largely ignored black audience. “Cannonball” Cantor, one of the few white announcers on WDIA, tells how this decision resulted not only in business success, but mirrored America’s nascent awareness of African American culture and social issues. While featuring shows with the now-quaint titles of “Tan Town Jamboree” and “Sepia Swing Club,” WDIA influenced a generation of young white Southerners who would soon meld the blues they heard on the radio with country music to form rock ‘n’ roll. African American on-the-air personalities and community involvement led to a more positive self image for listeners and paved the way for the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This firsthand look at one of the early victories in America’s war against racism is recommended.- Dan Bogey

Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Demonstrating the intimate connections among our public, political, and personal lives, these essays by Robert Cantwell explore the vernacular culture of everyday life. A keen and innovative observer of American culture, Cantwell casts a broad and penetrating intelligence over the cultural functioning of popular texts, artifacts, and performers, examining how cultural practices become performances and how performances become artifacts endowed with new meaning through the transformative acts of imagination. Cantwell’s points of departure range from the visual and the literary–a photograph of Woody Guthrie, or a poem by John Keats–to major cultural exhibitions such as the World’s Columbian Exposition. In all these domains, he unravels the implications for community and cultural life of a continual migration, transformation, and reformulation of cultural content. This book, however, has little to do with music from Memphis.

Gordon, Robert. It Came From Memphis. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Perhaps no other city in America has provided more grist for the music sociology mill than Memphis, Tennessee. While Memphis has been the muse for some truly classic books (Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, to name just one), the rhetoric surrounding The Birthplace of Rock & Roll–also The Home of the Blues–can be as daunting as a walk down the ravenously gentrified blues theme park that is Beale Street.

Enter Robert Gordon, a Memphis native and keen chronicler of the city’s secret history. Gordon’s It Came from Memphis all but ignores the Bluff City’s oft-cited musical hierarchy–B.B. King, Elvis, Al Green et al.–in favor of its great unheralded eccentrics. You might not be familiar with the Insect Trust or Mudboy and the Neutrons, but Gordon argues–with empathy and wit–that you should be.

But music is only part of the story here. Whether it’s Memphis’s wrestling legend Sputnik Monroe, or the city’s esoteric patron saint, artist-professor John McIntire, Gordon’s shrewd eye sees the mojo in them all. In a way, Gordon’s book is even more vital than the classic volumes on Memphis music that predate it. Where Guralnick interprets a musical tradition that is already firmly embedded in the American psyche, Gordon gives voice to a clandestine tradition that otherwise might go forgotten. –Matt Hanks

Lauterbach, Preston. “Beale Street Stories: Sweet Willie Wine.” In American Blues Scene . (accessed October 30, 2011).

Lee, George W. Beale Street, Where the Blues Began. New York: R. O. Ballou, 1934.

Lee was born near Indianola, Mississippi in 1894 . He first came to Memphis in 1912 where he worked each summer as a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel to finance his education at Alcorn A&M College. With the onset of World War I, Lee was accepted for admission to a segregated officer training school. The title ‘Lt. Lee’ remained with him for the rest of his life. Lt. Lee went on to become one of the most successful African American business and political leaders in the South. Lee acquired the nickname ‘Boswell of Beale Street’ through his gift of describing African American life and music in his books and stories. Beale Street: Where Blues Began received national acclaim and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. River George and Beale Street Sundown also portray African American life in the South. Lee’s admiration for W.C. Handy’s music and his recognition of its significance in American culture led him to support the creation of a park and statue in honor of the great blues writer. Lee remained an active member of the Memphis community until his death on August 1, 1976.

McKee, Margaret, and Fred Chisenhall. Beale Black & Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Anyone interested in the history of the Blues will find this book a treasure. The richest part of the book is the series of interviews they did with bluesmen like Big Joe Williams, B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Sam Chatmon, John Estes and Furry Lewis. They give a good picture of how these men came to the Blues, how they struggled to survive, and how they saw both the days when the blues was current and their rediscovery by folk-music developed blues audiences in the 1960s and 1970s. There is much here about the political relationships between Memphis politicians and the Black community during the Jim Crow era as well as much about the play of different social forces in the Black community.—Tony Thomas

Wiggins, William H., Jr. All Day and All Night: Memories from Beale Street Musicians. by Judy Peiser; Robert Gordon; Louis Guida. film. 1990. Review in The Journal of American Folklore , Vol. 107, No. 424 (Spring, 1994), pp. 313-315.Article Stable URL:

All Day and All Night is a thoroughly researched, finely edited, and effectively organized video documentary of the music created and played on this legendary Memphis street during the 1930s and 1940s. Executive director Judy Peiser and co-directors Robert Gordon and Louis Guida have orchestrated a disjointed collection of filmed interviews, old photographs, esoteric home-film footage, filmed contemporary performances of Beale Street musicians, rare recordings, the indefatigable research efforts of a motley crew of Center for Southern Folklore staff members and local blues aficionados,the professional editing experience of two technically trained editors- one in film, the other in recordings- along with the scholarly consultation of four distinguished humanists, who have published widely on the Beale Street community and music, into a superb half-hour videotape documentary of Beale Street music from the Great Depression to the dawning of the civil rights era.— William H. Wiggins, Jr.


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