- “Just a Half a Mile from the Mississippi Bridge”: The Mississippi River Valley Origins of Rock and Roll
Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie. She’s the only one who’d phone me here from Memphis Tennessee. Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge. Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge.—Chuck Berry (“Memphis, Tennessee”)
“Memphis, Tennessee,” a rock and roll song Chuck Berry wrote and first recorded in 1959, tells a story about love, but not in the way the listener first imagines. After a guitar introduction, the singer begins by asking a “long distance operator” to help him make a phone call to Memphis, Tennessee, so that he can talk to “my sweet Marie.” Marie has been calling the singer (his uncle took a message from her), but he does not know her phone number. He does know the approximate location of her home, however, and tells the operator it is on Memphis’s “south side, high up on a ridge / Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge.” He continues the story, explaining how much he misses Marie “and all the fun we had” until Marie’s mother forced them to end their relationship; he sings sadly “the last time I saw Marie” she was waving him goodbye with “hurry-home drops” trickling down her cheeks.
“Memphis, Tennessee” is not about a meddlesome parent standing in the way of young lovers. At the song’s end, the listener is surprised to learn that “Marie is only six years old” and the true nature of the tale becomes clear. It seems Marie’s mother has separated from the singer, “tore apart our happy home,” and is raising Marie by herself in the south Memphis. Thus [End Page 99] Chuck Berry’s voice is that of a lonesome, estranged, father, trying to return a phone call from his child, imploring a telephone operator to “Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee” (Berry, Autobiography 161, 335).
“Memphis, Tennessee” was a hit record for Chuck Berry and a score of other musicians who recorded it, from Johnny Rivers to Bo Didley to Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. It is a typical late 50s rock and roll song in that it is built on a three-chord, twelve-bar pattern, with sparse, clear instrumentation and compelling syncopated rhythm. It combines rhythm and blues with country music vocal and instrumental stylings. One of “Memphis, Tennessee”’s greatest strengths is that it is a sad song that is somehow upbeat. The driving rhythm guitar combines with the singer’s playful lyrics and his admirable determination to reunite with his daughter to produce hope for a happy ending high up on that Memphis ridge (Klinkenborg).
Chuck Berry’s vision of the ridge overlooking the Mississippi River, conjures up many other Memphis images. Those who know the Chickasaw Bluffs and the city built upon them can imagine Marie’s neighborhood. It is no doubt close to the juncture of McLemore and College streets, where Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton built Stax Records Company in the late 1950s and 1960s. And a few miles to the north, at 706 Union Avenue, lay Sam Phillips’s Sun Records Studio. Rock and roll music evolved throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley in the 1950s, and it certainly flourished in Memphis, Tennessee, “. . . high up on a ridge / Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge.”
Rock and roll (“rock”) music stands alongside country, blues, gospel, and jazz, as one of the five genres of exceptional American music. “Rock and roll” is folk slang sometimes denoting sexual intercourse. Like its musical cousins, rock and roll was born in the Mississippi River Valley and moved up and down its course, including its tributaries (the Cumberland, Tennessee, Illinois, and Missouri rivers), and along the highways and railroads which paralleled those rivers. And like its musical cousins, rock and roll was born in the Mississippi River Valley because that is the region of the United States where African American culture most thoroughly blended with that of Anglo and Celtic Americans (British Americans) (Malone and Stricklin 5...