At this Smithsonian affiliate just steps from Beale Street, you’ll learn how Memphis became a crucible for the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and soul. Your guides? A treasure of memorabilia and a loaded playlist.
Once upon a time, two researchers with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History analyzed the origins of American music. Their journey started in the Mississippi Delta and traced the footsteps of black and white musicians, focusing intently on where the musicians’ paths intertwined. That place was Memphis.
In 1996, to honor the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary, the research evolved into an exhibit. Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads explored how Delta blues, country and gospel music fused with the sounds of Memphis’ Beale Street to form new genres inside the city’s Sun, Stax and Royal Studios.
In 2000, the Smithsonian turned the exhibit over to Memphis, a first for the world leader in museums and research. And that’s the story of how one exhibit inspired an entire museum: the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul.
Plan your visit
Memphis is full of music-themed attractions, but the Rock ‘n’ Soul is unique in that it tells the WHOLE Memphis music story. Think of it as the unabridged version, complete with extended cuts: you can hear every musical style, encounter characters across genres and gain access to multimedia extras so you can geek/rock out as much as you want (more on that in a moment).
For this reason, I like to recommend the Rock ‘n’ Soul as a first-stop on your Memphis music pilgrimage. Not only does it give you a dynamic primer on the genres of Memphis music (ranging from jug bands and jazz orchestras to blues, rock, soul, power pop and rap, in case you didn’t know the extent of it), the museum explores how the styles are connected—and how they connect to local and national narratives. What does that look like in moments? Moving film commentary from Memphis performers about the city’s music scene and the civil rights movement. Artifacts such as a cotton scale that paint a picture of the hardscrabble rural life that found an outlet in work songs, hymns, ballads and the city of Memphis.
Here’s what it looks like in snapshots: walking through the Rock ‘n’ Soul, you’ll lay eyes on the original lyrics for Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” Ike Turner’s first piano. Sun Studio’s playback speaker, hand-built by Sam Phillips to help record Elvis, Ike, B.B. King, Johnny Cash and others. The diamond-and-emerald grand piano watch Isaac Hayes designed for himself. And much more. For a basic walk-through, devote 45 minutes.
Add time for A/V extras
Talk to anyone who’s visited Rock ‘n’ Soul and what you’ll hear on repeat—besides how thorough the museum is—relates to the playlist. Yes, this museum has its own playlist: 100ish songs chronicling the progression and proliferation of Memphis music from W.C. Handy to Robert Johnson to Jerry Lee Lewis to Otis Redding to The Box Tops, adding another layer to the memorabilia displayed before you. So as you check out that cotton scale, you can queue up “Cotton Choppin’ Blues” by Big Bill Broonzy. Getting an eyeful of Ann Peebles’ spangled stage costume, you might groove to “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” To tune in, listen for prompts in your audio tour included with museum admission, or hang out around the museum’s five vintage jukeboxes. Each jukebox promotes a different playlist you can access using your tour audio player.
For a deeper dive and $10, check out the audio walking tour of Beale Street available at the Rock ‘n’ Soul admission desk. This is Beale like Beale can’t even show you: numbered stops on a souvenir map conjure a time when big bands filled these clubs, jug and blues bands filled the streets and W.C. Handy sat composing inside a saloon called Pee Wee’s. My best bet? Spend a day touring the museum and taking the walking tour at your own pace—you have the tour ’til the museum closes, so stop for photo ops, souvenir shopping, eats and drinks as you wish.