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Goin' Down to Memphis : The Mississipi River Town Known for Blues 'n' Barbecue Lights Up With New Civic Enticements : The Culture


MEMPHIS — To find the beating heart of Memphis, Tenn., I joined the throngs of tourists this spring and headed for historic Beale Street, where blues and barbeque waft on the Delta breezes from morning until way past midnight.

But instead of heading for any one of the many restaurants and clubs that line the famous walkway, I ducked inside No. 130, new home of the nationally reknown Center for Southern Folklore.

The building--which used to house the old Lansky Clothing Store, where musicians including Elvis shopped--has been remodeled to accommodate the center, an idiosyncratic place that is equal parts gift shop, exhibit hall, music shrine, performing arts showcase, bookstore and unofficial guide to what's happening in Memphis on any given day of the year.

Recently relocated from the upper floors of a building a few doors down, the new digs are cultured and homey, more accessible and allowing in lots of sunlight from the big paned windows at the corner of 2nd and Beale streets.

"We started out doing films and books in 1972 and expanded," says executive director Judy Peiser, who co-founded the center 21 years ago. "It made perfect sense to become an interpretive public facility where people and traditions are presented in an ongoing manner."

For Peiser, that means bringing in area quiltmakers to demonstrate their colonial art, toymakers who explain how corncob dolls are fashioned, mandolin players wielding handmade instruments from the back country or storytellers who spin yarns about living for decades along the Mississippi Delta.

Each Saturday afternoon, you can even see 75-year-old blues and boogie-woogie man Mose Vinson performing at his piano inside the center.

"We're presenting folk art and artists to people in non-traditional ways," Peiser says. "There's usually stuff on the walls but . . . we also use people's voices and skills as a way to communicate about the region."

There is also a gift store, where items are stacked on shelves and in glass counters. Consider the carved wooden train whistle by H.C. West, on sale at the gift shop for $5.

As a collector of California pottery, I was especially intrigued by the work of Jerry Brown, a ninth-generation potter from Hamilton, Ala., who has won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. One of Brown's most popular items is a $20 bowl that says "popcorn" outside and "ain't no more" inside.

I couldn't find any autographed photos of Dolly Parton or Confederate flags here. But the center does carry silk-screened T-shirts by Southern folk artists, from Howard Finster to Moses Tolliver ($16), handmade wooden yo-yos ($11 and $12) and cotton bolls ($1) with the stem and leaves attached that the center staff picked themselves "so Yankees would know what cotton is," Peiser explains wryly.

"We look at the gift shop as a way to acculturate people to the region by presenting the music and the folk art and the colors that are so vibrant," she adds.

One of the more popular items is "A Slice of the South," a $29.95 gift box developed by the center that contains 14 traditional Southern items such as a cloth bag of grits, a fan for those humid summer days, sorghum, scuppernong jelly--an Algonquin Indian name for a type of golden-green grape that grows in the South--and a handbook explaining such Southern delicacies as the "goo-goo cluster," a little circular candy bar composed of peanuts, milk chocolate, marshmallow and caramel that is hawked each week at the Grand Ole Opry.

The box also includes the "Slice of Southern Music" cassette, featuring folk, blues, jug music, gospel and jazz by artists such as Booker T. Laury, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Booba Barnes and Othar Turner, who introduces listeners to the rare example of an African-American fife-and-drum band.

The center also has an extensive collection of blues, gospel, storytelling and other records, cassettes and CDs on sale. There are also documentary films, which can be rented, video store-style.

Then there are the specialty guidebooks, such as "Memphis Cuisine" (Tulane Press, $12.95); "How to Eat Like a Southerner and Live to Tell About It" (Clarkson Potter, $20); "Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980" (University Press of Mississippi, $24.95), and the "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture" in four paperback volumes (Doubleday, $64), in whose pages 800 scholars and researchers hold forth on local architecture, literature, music, civil rights and history. The center also has tall stacks of "The Jazz and Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S." (Addison/Wesley, $14.95), a carefully researched book that music lovers snap up in droves.

"I used to tell everyone when they came (to town), 'Go here, here and here,' " Peiser says. "Now I just say, 'Buy the book.' "

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