Home of the Blues: Performance, Tourism, and Tips on Beale Street

Warren, Lydia, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Kisliuk, Michelle, Music, University of Virginia

This is a study of musical life—and what shapes it—on contemporary Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Beale is a music-based tourist site billed by the city of Memphis as the “Official” Home of the Blues. In 1966 a two-block section of Beale was declared a National Historic District for its connection to blues music, and in 1983 those two blocks were taken over by a public-private development entity in order to revitalize it explicitly as a tourist attraction. In 2020 it was the most visited tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee. In this participant-observer based ethnographic dissertation, I show how people, policies, trends, and narratives about blues have shaped revitalized Beale Street into what it is today.

Beale Street is a physical manifestation of the confluence of several forces in contemporary American life that impact and attempt to define it: urban renewal and slum clearance; the white curation of blues into a claimed collective American heritage; exploitation of tips-based labor; and the touristic impulse to discover the authentic. This confluence creates a unique economic and cultural zone: a historically-Black site in a majority-Black city that is managed by largely white operators. The integrated musical labor force depends largely upon tips and is, thus, influenced by expectations and requests from tourists. And these tourists, more often than not, have a superficial or skewed understanding of the Black traditions and aesthetics of Beale.

But Beale is also a place where local musicians have continued old traditions and forged new ones. While on stage or in conversation, Beale Street musicians are quick to highlight their local mentors, local influences, the folks who brought them into the scene, and the musicians with whom they have special connections—their Beale Street family—and the pathways they cut for themselves or followed others down to start and maintain their Beale Street careers. In the dissertation I argue that musicians on Beale and their choices and traditions are just as valid, just as worthy of a listen, and just a worthy of study and respect, as previous generations of Beale Streeters.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
blues, music, performance, labor, tourism
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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