I recently took a trip to Memphis, TN to see some of the sites that most tourists don’t necessarily visit when they visit such a culturally influential place. I didn’t spend a lot of time on Beale Street and avoided Graceland like the plague. While I did enjoy the music and more than my fair share of the most delicious barbecue I’ve ever had in my life, the main focus of my trip were a couple of places the average person wouldn’t have cared much to explore.
The first of these is a little place called Voodoo Village. At the end of Mary Angela Road, amid the dense foliage and decaying homes is a gated community with a macabre reputation. Through the trees and assorted chain link fence segments you can see sculptures and what look like wooden grave markers with Masonic symbols and other glyphs carved or painted on them. You’d think such a unique and interesting place would welcome at least a bit of public attention, maybe even invite folks in to learn a bit about this old, animistic religion. The neighborhood itself is a demilitarized zone full of crumbling homes and scorched patches in the pavement where cars have burned. Directly across the street from the gate is an old, ranch style home with a roof replaced by a sagging blue tarp. It was here that I saw the only confirmed inhabitant of Mary Angela Road who, before I could even say hello, ran into the home and disappeared. This only added to the feeling of disquiet from the dead end road at the threshold of hell. With the gate to the village padlocked and a sense that, perhaps, I wasn’t quite as alone as I initially believed, I got back in my car and drove down to the church at the start of the road.
My next stop was Elmwood Cemetery. Again, on a dead end road called Dudley Street, a gorgeous, classical stone gate stands next to a shop that manufactures tombstones. Driving through the gate and across the bridge you immediately come to the original caretaker’s house with it’s bell and steepled, red tin roof. For a ten dollar donation you can get a map and audio cd to help you follow along the history tour of the cemetery, learning about some of the more historically prominent Memphians buried inside the walls of Elmwood. From the founding of the town through the Civil War to the sinking of the Sultana and the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1870’s you hear about it all. For a fan of both the architecture and art of cemeteries as well as a history buff, this alone would have been a dream. But, a quarter of the way through the tour I came across a large, middle aged man with feathered white hair and a red flannel shirt who grinned and introduced himself as Vern. Vern is a Memphis native who I encountered at Bolton’s tomb and has been frequenting Elmwood since he was seventeen. He shared a bit more of the colorful history of the town and elaborated on what I still had ahead of me as I continued along the history tour. In all I spent about three hours inside the cemetery and still didn’t see everything.
There was more that I wanted to do but, staying only a day, I was limited. The Mississippian Indian Mounds, the Civil War battlefields, and of course a lot of blues and rock music. I’d recommend anyone taking a few days to see Memphis to stop at Elmwood, to check out the music on Beale St, and to have lunch at Central BBQ.
More stories, more reviews, and lots more weird stuff still to come.