This has been a relatively rough year for Memphis, and yet one of the more uplifting things I have noticed has been the spreading of neighborhood-based outdoor artworks and murals. While this has been going on for several years, it has virtually exploded this summer. I was not pleased with the demolition of the historic W. C. Handy Theatre in Orange Mound, but it did cheer me to see the orange-and-white public art on the bricks that remain from the foundation at the site. The slogans emphasize pride in the Orange Mound community and its high school, Melrose. A brightly-colored mural a few blocks away carries a timely message: “Dreams Matter, We Matter”. Just north of the railroad tracks, the historic Beltline neighborhood is celebrated in a building-length mural on the wall of a grocery store. In Binghampton, the artwork near the basketball courts celebrates the game of basketball, for which The Hamp is known, being the neighborhood of Anfernee Hardaway. But perhaps the most striking effort was the long series of murals on the inside flood wall along Chelsea between McLean and Evergreen in the Evergreen neighborhood. The different panels celebrate many different aspects of hip-hop culture or Memphis culture, with the word “REVIVAL” prominently featured in the first one. It is an appropriate slogan for a city that is long overdue for renewal.
At the end of the band’s final set at BJ’s Secret, I decided to head back to Central Avenue through the surrounding neighborhood, and came upon several signs and murals that suggest that the Beltline neighborhood has a proud and unique history, despite those who consider it just a part of Orange Mound. The Beltline neighborhood, unlike Orange Mound, sits to the north of the Southern railroad tracks, and at least one of the signs indicates that the community is a hundred years old, which would put its founding around 1912 or 1913. The community’s name is taken from Beltline Street which runs through it, and that name suggests that the street marked the furthest eastern border of Memphis in that day. 1912 was also the year of founding of the West Tennessee State Normal School for Teachers, further east beyond the community of Buntyn at a place on the railroad that eventually became known as Normal, Tennessee. It is possible that the Beltline subdivision was developed in anticipation of the opening of the normal school to the east.
Memphis blues singer Nate Dogg performs the familiar blues tune “Hoochie Coochie Man” at BJ’s Secret in the Beltline neighborhood of Memphis. The club features live blues most Sunday nights until midnight.
Memphis bluesman Nate Dogg (not to be confused with the late rapper) performs several Tyrone Davis songs with his band the Fellaz at BJ’s Secret in the Beltline neighborhood near the Liberty Bowl and Tiger Lane.
About a year ago, the stellar I Love Memphis blog published a really-cool article about the hidden world of Memphis juke joints, and the article mentioned a place called BJ’s Secret on Southern Avenue in the obscure neighborhood near the Liberty Bowl known as the Beltline. The article described the place as having a live blues band on Sunday night, but when I rolled past it the next Sunday night, there were few cars, and though the place was open, nothing seemed to be happening. This past Sunday night, something told me to drive over there again, and this time the place was off the chain. There were no parking places left, so I had to park up the block, and I could hear the band from the parking lot. The cover was $7, and inside on stage was a band called Nate Dogg and the Fellaz, but the music was feel-good downhome blues and soul. Most of the patrons were neighborhood people who seemed to know each other, and the people on stage, but the atmosphere was friendly and joyful and the surroundings and music far more authentic than what passes for “Memphis music” on most nights on Beale Street. While I’m sure the regulars would like for BJ’s to remain a secret, it’s a great slice of Memphis culture that few local residents or tourists have gotten to experience.