Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 17:50 UK

Poverty and the blues in Memphis

As the turmoil in the financial markets continues, Alan Little visits Tennessee in the southern USA, where many people view the crisis as a clash between Wall Street and Main Street.

TeBeale Street, Memphis (Photo:Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
Memphis' Beale Street has a strong history of blues music
It is hot in Memphis and the humidity hangs about you like a layer of clothing.

I sit in the shade of a tree in WC Handy Park on Beale Street in the city centre.

Beale Street thinks of itself as the home of the blues. There is a band playing to a lazy Sunday afternoon audience of 40 or so.

The music is mesmerising. And this is where I meet Blind Mississippi Morris. He is waiting his turn to perform. He sings the blues.

Blind Mississippi Morris lost his sight when he was four years old.

He grew up in the racially segregated south of the 1950s, working the plantations of the Mississippi valley as a child of 12, pulling water carts along a 2-mile (3.2km) rutted track in the blazing midday sun.

"Anyone can learn to play an instrument technically," he told me.

"But you can't make it cry for you, scream for you, die for you unless you've lived through the despair and the pain. These emotions I draw from my own life".

Musical legacy

The music of the Mississippi Valley is shaped by the accumulated experience of generations.

You can draw a straight line from this sun-drenched, happy, music-filled city-centre park to the 19th Century, when Memphis was home to one of the biggest slave markets in the United States.

The music that grew out of the adversity, the poverty, the toil of generations is still alive in the rhythms and cadences and the rise and fall of Blind Mississippi Morris's powerful voice.

Memphis was a poor city even before the current crisis hit
Earlier, a Memphis tour guide had told me that he loved the landscape of the city despite its poverty and visible decay because, as he put it, "this landscape has memory".

Is not the same true of music in Memphis?

It has memory too. You can hear in it the voices, the pain, the despair, the joys and hopes and loves and longings of generations long gone.

There is a story they tell here about Elvis Presley, who grew up a few blocks from this park.

Elvis Presley in 1957
Elvis and his parents moved to Memphis in 1948
He cut his first record, That's Alright Mama, in 1954.

When it was first played on local radio, it was a sensation. Everyone assumed the singer was a black man.

Only when he gave his first local radio interview, and revealed, on the air, that he had gone to the racially segregated whites-only Hume's High School did the penny drop: that this extraordinary black man's voice slid from the throat of a Tennessee white boy.


Memphis was a poor city even before the current crisis hit.

Its roots are in slavery and you can see the legacy of the plantations everywhere, in the poor black suburbs, where groups of unemployed men sit around in sullen listlessness in front of boarded up shops and derelict factories.

The city remains racially segregated. Black people in the run down north side, white people in the more prosperous mid-town.

It is the low paid who are most vulnerable to the economic crisis on Main Street USA
I stopped at a little strip mall - a row of single storey shops - where the owner was barbecuing meat in the parking lot, getting ready for passing trade of the evening.

"I've been here since 1969," he said.

"Things have never been this bad. My customers have money to spend for the first four or five days of the month, then they don't."

I asked him about the Wall Street bail-out plan and there was a flash not of anger but of impatience, of dismay.

"Who's gonna bail me out when I go under," he said. "I'll tell you who - ain't nobody gonna bail me out".


And it is the low paid who are most vulnerable to the economic crisis on Main Street, USA.

Map of Tenessee showing the city of Memphis
Take Denisa. She bought her home four years ago.

Two years ago, her mortgage payments started rising, as interest rates went up.

Her monthly bill is now $200 (114) more than it was when she took out the loan. She cannot afford it.

Her bank has begun foreclosure proceedings. She is close to losing her home.

"It happens so fast and then accelerates," she says.

The tension is written in her face.

As a journalist, over the years you get used to meeting people in extremes.

Often they seem glad to tell you their story. You learn not to be affected by their distress, to keep your emotional distance.

Sometimes this proper detachment fails and the human being in you prevails.

Denisa is a gentle, courteous, articulate woman with a bright, handsome face. Her voice has a pleasing Mississippi valley drawl. There is a warmth and a charm to her that you cannot miss.

"My 11-year-old son came home and asked me: 'Mother, what does foreclosure mean?'," she said. "Children are smarter than we think they are.

"They know when there's something wrong. I sat him down and tried to explain the situation we are in. He's scared. He doesn't sleep at night."

And with that she choked, trembled a little, and began to cry.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 2 October, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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