Mark Cohn’s Walking in Memphis is a song about the emotional power felt by immigrants as they weave into the American fabric. The song tells the story of a visit presumably taken by the musician, Mark Cohn (who I know nothing about, except that he has a last name that shows he’s from one of the upper Jewish castes, but has the accent and musical sensibilities of someone obviously raised in America) to the American musical Mecca-hovel: Memphis Tennessee. The lyrics drip with excitement, reverence ... and reference.
Put on my blue suede shoes,
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me,
Yes I’ve got a first class ticket,
but I’m as blue as a boy can be
(I’m sorry, we need to go through this slowly)
First, the reference to Elvis’s iconic hit, Blue Suede Shoes … a song he did not write, but performed brilliantly by not simply doing it in its original “Delta Blues” style, but by instead adding the skiffle-styled hop that comes directly from the Scotch-Irish tradition, and which is the essential extra step that moves us from blues, into rock. So those shoes, in short, were how Elvis walked the genre forward, and now our Jewish brethren is going to try them on too.
And that’s why that “first class ticket” is important. How did Marc get that ticket? Why is it first class? Did he pay for it? Is he so special that they brought him down to Memphis for some reason? Unclear. But he’s flying in, and he wants to join the story. The story of Delta Blues, of its black innovators … he ‘knows’ about these people probably better than the locals do. Consider the second verse:
Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered around his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing
Waiting for The King
Down in the Jungle Room
The locals do not see these ghosts, they do not know their story as he does. He is connected to this land at a level deeper than blood and soil. They may hover around his tomb (the monument to his once animated body), but Marc Cohn can see his live spirit still gracing this world (it is grace-land, after all)... does anyone get it? Does anyone get how he belongs here?
Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And 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"
This is song's climax, and it is the important point de capiton that our narrator has been waiting for. The whole story until this point has been our jet setting Jew’s religious pilgrimage to a town he knows, in some ways, more than the locals. He knows its lore, he knows its ghosts, he knows its history … he is desperately trying to wear the shoes that make it possible to walk on this land, yet he continues to float. He is at a distance that class, and history, and time force on all of us. But in this third verse he is finally allowed to share that piece of him that shows he does connect: His amazing control of song.
He must have wowed Muriel, a local hero who has been playing at the local Hollywood dive-diner for years, and who will never be rich or successful like Elvis was, but who still participates in the deep musical traditions that really define the Memphis sound. And how do we know he 'hit it'? She was able to be confused on his roots. When she asks if he's a Christian, Muriel is really asking if he's one of her kind? She doesn't see his Jewish features, she is not distracted by his northern accent, nor any other feature that our narrator has wrestled with his whole life as he's tried to belong. Instead, she reveals her local, native simplicity, and through music reaches across the same isles that Elvis reached between W.C. Handy and the American popular music market.
Our narrator doesn't lie or overstate his connection. I am a Christian ... just for tonight.
I highly doubt Marc Cohn has any particular Jewish reverences. I doubt he keeps kosher and I doubt he reads Talmud. But Jewishness is not about any of those things, just as much as when Muriel asked him if he's a Christian, she wasn't really asking about his faith. Cohn knows this ... because the privilege of his class is understanding more about Muriel than she understands herself. He is a tourist. He feels the deep connection, but he still floats in his shoes. He will return home with his first class ticket, and he will tell the story, and we will connect with that magical trip to the magical place ... and we can all feel, if just for a few moments, that we too belong.