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Entries in Tennessee Songs (7)


Tennessee Songs: Nina Simone

Nina's not kidding. It all happens too slow: then, now, always.

"Alabama's got me so upset.
Tennessee made me lose my rest.
And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn."

The proper title is "I Loves You Porgy":


Tennessee Songs: Via Chicago

Although this song has nothing to do with Tennessee, it does. I've gone home via Chicago. Film by Winterlongfilms. Words by Jeff Tweedy.

I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me
Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies
I sat and watched you bleed
Buried you alive in a fireworks display
Raining down on me
Your cold hotblood ran away from me to the sea

I printed my name on the back of a leaf
And I watched it float away
The hope I had in a notebook full of white, dry pages
Was all I tried to save
But the wind blew me back, via Chicago
In the middle of the night
And all without fight at the crush of veils and starlight

I know I'll make it back one of these days
And turn on your TV
To watch a man with a face like mine
Being chased down a busy street
When he gets caught, I wont get up
And I wont go to sleep

I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Via Chicago


Tennessee Songs: Chattanooga Choo Choo

The highest-rated comment on this Glenn Miller Orchestra video says, “HOT friggin’ DAMN!” which pretty well sums us this dance by the Nicholas Brothers, a peacock showdown set off by the smokin' hot Dorothy Dandridge.

“When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far.
Shovel all the coal in.
Gotta keep it rollin'.
Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are.”

Contrast the Nicholas Brothers' version with the Frances Langford version: a bit of staged, staid militarism from the World War II era.

And then Bette Midler, in a bohemian bathhouse routine that would later propel her to fame.


Tennessee Songs: Memphis & MLK

Unlike other songs in the "Tennessee Songs" series, these three don't have "Tennessee" explicitly in them.

Rather, they contain the word "Memphis," the city where a great nonviolent reformer fell to an even greater system of organized violence, where the man who said "Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts" was shot in broad daylight.

"Oh muddy water,
Rolling to Memphis.
If you were there, you’d swear
It was more than a man who died."

In Memphis, on the evening of April 4, 1968, at 6:01pm, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. Dr. King and his colleague Reverend Ralph Abernathy stayed in that room so often that it was referred to as the "King-Abernathy Suite."

The Lorraine opened in 1925 as the "Whites Only" Windsor Hotel. Walter and Loree Bailey purchased the property in 1942 and renamed it. It was one of the only hotels open to black guests in Memphis in the 1950s and 60s. Whenever Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan or Nat Cole came to town, they stayed at the Lorraine.

By 1982, the city had foreclosed on the structure, which had by that time become low-income housing. The last resident, Jacqueline Smith, was forcibly removed from her apartment there in 1988.

The Lorraine has since been restored to its 1968 furnishings and now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. A 1959 Dodge and 1968 Cadillac sit in the parking lot under Room 306. It's one of the most overwhelming museums you will ever visit.

Dr. King was in Memphis to join the Sanitation Workers' Union Strike. The workers were on strike after the city failed to fix the situations that caused the death of two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

In response to the strike, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb ordered police to mace and tear gas the nonviolent demonstrators on several occasions. Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4000 armed National Guard troops and tanks.

"Early morning [sic], April 4th
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life.
They could not take your pride.
In the name of love.
What more in the name of love?" 

In 1964, at the age of 35, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the prize money—$54,123—to charity. Forty-plus years later in 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize totaled about $1.5 million. The award was split between two entities: a person and a bank.

In 1968, the federal minimum wage in the U.S. was $1.60 per hour. At the time of the strike, Memphis sanitation laborers made two dimes more than minimum wage, $1.80 per hour, which Dr. King rightly called "starvation wages."

In fact, one account by a former Memphis sanitation worker puts the figure closer to 75 cents per hour. There were likely two separate pay scales: legal and illegal.

Starvation Wages
Adjusted for inflation, starvation wages in the U.S. have actually gotten lower over the past two generations. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the federal minimum wage had its highest purchasing power the year Dr. King was assassinated. In 1968, minimum wage was $8.54 per hour. But by 2006, minimum wage was down to $5.46 per hour. (Both wage figures stated in equivalent 2009 dollars, the year of the study.)

After Dr. King's assassination, the Memphis Sanitation Workers Union continued their strike for basic rights and fair pay, which they never fully received. Based on searches in the Memphis phone book, it appears the union no longer exists.

Starvation wages still exist, continuing to dwindle with no job stability, no benefits and no political representation to stop it.

Violence continues, too. In fact, violence flourishes: as salable as ever, rewarded with riches beyond conscience, paying a mockery tithe to anyone who might slow it down.

"They asked me if I would do a little number
And I sang with all my might,
And she said, 'Tell me are you a Christian child?'
And I said 'Ma'am I am tonight.'
Walking in Memphis."


Tennessee Songs: Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry is so good, this song could play 100 times and not get old.

"Long-distance information give me Memphis, Tennessee.
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me.
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge,
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge."

(For a good laugh, check out Chuck's face at 1:20 when Yoko does her thing.)